Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.


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The best songs of 2014

The year is coming to a close, and when looking back on it, there are a few significant themes. The launch of abstractmag.com with friends from university is something that I am very proud of – it gave me space to be inspired again, to meet new writers and help them find a voice, and to practise writing the sort of pieces that I enjoy most (“Will One Direction survive in a socialist utopia?” is my personal favourite headline of the year).

2014 was also a great year for women in pop music. Not only are more and more celebrities embracing feminism but their music is reflecting that too. From Beyonce’s foot phone to Taylor Swift standing on a horse, women finally seemed to get bored of spending their music videos looking suggestively (or sleepily) into the camera. Instead, they just started doing whatever the hell they want.

So it’s no surprise that when I came to write a “top 10 songs of the year” list for Abstract, the top five were all by women. You can read the countdown (and my musings on what counts as “good” music) here.

Happy new year!

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Could Taylor Swift be my next feminist hero?

With the release of Taylor Swift’s fifth album, Amy Adams celebrates the feminist awakening of one of the world’s biggest popstars.

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

With her fifth album releasing today, there has been a notable shift in Taylor Swift’s message. In the press she is known mostly for her songs about famous exes, and a couple of years ago the non-Swifty media had reached almost dizzying heights of speculation. Just how many men has she dated and what were the age differences? How do the exes feel? Straight guys must be terrified of going near her lest they become no more than a catchy chorus in her next single!

There was a time when Taylor Swift couldn’t even be seen making eye contact with a man without it appearing all over the media. As the rumours stacked up, the “maybe SHE’S the one with the problem!” vibe grew ever stronger. (God forbid that a woman play the field, ditch the men she doesn’t see a future with, and then sing about it. After all, it’s not like men have ever written scathing songs about their exes, have they Ed Sheeran?)

But in a world where the narratives of Taylor Swift’s relationships are seen as public property, I’m proud to be a fan of a woman who reclaims control of those stories through her music. No matter how much they are spun out of all recognition, she is determined to have the final word. So even before she self-defined as a feminist, I was still happy to put her in the “empowering female musicians” category and listen to 22 on repeat for days on end.

But things have changed between her last album, Red, and now. The most obvious is that Tay-Tay hasn’t been dating anyone at all for well over a year and a half. “I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore.” Instead, she’s made more female friends, moved to New York, openly identified as a feminist for the first time, and bought another cat.

Of course, every right-minded single lady in her 20s is morally obligated to love cats, but it’s the feminist awakening that I care about most. Since befriending Lena Dunham, she has been regularly talking about feminism in interviews and calling out sexism wherever she sees it. Significantly, part of that discussion has involved admitting that she didn’t always understand what the term meant, and that she held many of the same assumptions and prejudices that continue to make feminism a dirty word amongst the “why not rebrand it as equalism” crowd.

But as more and more female celebrities come out in favour of the movement, there’s a lot of talk about how they’re not doing the work of “real” feminism. All this standing in front of a giant neon sign is just detracting from the difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable work of ending violence against women and fighting economic inequality. Now, I don’t want to say that this opinion is invalid, because of course those are very, very different and important goals. Improving the lives of women should remain central to feminism, and I’m not saying that 21st-century feminist debate begins with Beyoncé and ends with Emma Watson.

However, I don’t think that this makes their contributions any less worthy or exciting. The fact that these highly influential women are speaking up at all is a shift that could sway the opinions of millions of people who are starting their own feminist journey.

It’s a step. They’re all steps. But when individuals take steps together, society begins to move. Gateway celebrity feminism isn’t taking away from more serious feminist activism. It’s just that: a gateway. And once we’re through, there should be room for everyone, doing lots of different kinds of work, united by a common belief that all genders should be treated with the same amount of respect.

Taylor Swift has been called the “voice of a generation” for years. But the 16 year olds who were once dreaming of a love story are now in their early 20s, and they’ve survived an economic downfall, political unrest, and a world that seems intent on tearing itself to pieces.

Taylor Swift is not the same girl who wrote a homophobic lyric in Picture to Burn, one of her earliest singles. She’s not even the same girl who subsequently changed that lyric in her music video, and stopped singing it in concert. In fact, she’s come so far that she’s now started actively queering her own lyrics on stage.

Of course, anyone who noted the the cultural appropriation in her video for Shake It Off will also know that she still has a lot more to learn. I’d like to see a feminist who hasn’t.

We’re all on a journey, and we can’t expect every new feminist to instantly know how to change the world – but we can welcome them into the fold, forgive them for their mistakes, and help them to grow.


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A good girl and you know it: the 21st-century Madonna-Whore complex

Pop music seems obsessed with good girls, but what does that really say about how male singers view women?

Drake

Do you wanna roll with a good girl? Because Drake certainly seems to. Photo: NRK P3/Flickr

You’re a good girl and you know it
You act so different around me
You’re a good girl and you know it
I know exactly who you could be

Let’s talk about good girls. I’m willing to bet that most of the women reading this have, in their lifetimes, been described as either a good or a bad girl. Personally, I used to fit so neatly into the good girl category that my friends would refer to me as “the perfect granddaughter” – and this is while I was university, where us teacher’s pet types are obliged to try on the bad girl costume while vomiting out of a taxi window at least once.

But what does being a good girl actually mean? It’s a phrase that is so culturally ingrained that it’s difficult to listen to music without hearing some guy crooning to a fictitious good girl about how he knows, underneath, that she’s actually bad. Naturally, he’s the one to help her embrace this side of her – with his penis.

In Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke is so sure that his good girl is actually bad, he’s willing to forgo asking for her consent altogether. He knows she wants it – she’s an animal – it’s in her nature.

Meanwhile, Drake is so obsessed with good girls that it wasn’t enough to just make them the hook of his biggest single, he had to get the idea into Beyoncé’s eponymous album too.

And just when I thought I was safe with 2014’s favourite breakout boyband, 5 Seconds of Summer, there it was again. There’s a whole album track about how “good girls are bad girls that haven’t been caught”, a line so unoriginal that it’s probably been lifted from one of their mum’s fridge magnets. And how does the hero of the song know that good girls are just pretending? Because he catches a straight-A student sneaking out to see her boyfriend, and she decides to let him in on the secret.

Good girls, according to popstars, are all hiding their bad girl nature underneath a veneer of good grades and coy smiles. All it takes is a man to bring out their true, sexy core.

And sex is always the line that they cross. In these songs, good girls don’t become bad girls by beating someone up, or selling drugs, or robbing a bank. They just have to fuck someone.

But where is the line? Sure, a one night stand is classic bad girl behaviour, but apparently so is having a boyfriend. What if you’re engaged? What if you wait until marriage, but you and your husband enjoy a little BDSM? And what about lesbians? Does their disregard of the status quo make them inherently bad, or can they still keep their halo intact somehow?

The truth is, this is a question that society has been battling with for thousands of years – since biblical times at the very least. The Madonna-whore dichotomy is an age-old way of understanding women. They are either motherly saints who should be protected from the world’s evils, or sluts who deserve everything they get. It’s an idea so deeply embedded in our culture that it manifests itself as a psychological condition, first named by Freud, which can keep men from seeing any women as real human beings.

You only have to glance at a tabloid to compare how they treat good girls like the “elegant” Kate Middleton to the more controversial figures such as “wannabe” Josie Cunningham. Bad girls are torn apart by the media – just look what happened to Tulisa – whilst simultaneously sexualised and lusted after.

The few good girls that manage to jump through enough hoops are then held on such a high pedestal that it’s almost enough to make the rest of us give up altogether. And while it’s easy for a woman to fall from grace (hey there, Miley), it’s impossible to climb back up again.

Let’s destroy the lot. Bad girls are only useful as sex objects, and good girls are actually all bad girls anyway. So what’s the point? In 1931, Virginia Woolf said that we have to “kill the angel in the house” in order to get anything done. Let’s kill the good girl along with her; she’s just holding real women back. Women who make mistakes; who like sex but don’t have to be defined by it; who have far more important things to do than worry about whether they’re living up to Robin Thicke’s lecherous standards.

“Good girl!” is praise that we give to toddlers when they count to 10 correctly, or puppies when they manage not to piss on the floor. It’s not an accurate description of adult women.


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Will One Direction survive in a socialist utopia?

How will the world’s biggest boyband fair when the revolution comes? Amy Adams looks at what socialism might hold for Harry, Niall, Louis, Liam and Zayn.

Liam looks concerned but music won't necessarily die out after the revolution. Photo: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr

Liam looks concerned but music won’t necessarily die out after the revolution. Photo: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr

There are two things I truly believe. Firstly, that capitalism is an unsustainable and grossly unfair system in which the world’s 100 richest billionaires earned enough money to end extreme poverty four times over in one year.

Secondly, that One Direction, capitalism’s non-threatening poster boys, bring more pure joy to my life than any other musical artist (except Beyoncé).

And that got me thinking – when the revolution happens, and we live in a socialist utopia free from poverty and inequality, what happens to 1D?

To answer this extremely pressing question, we first must examine what a socialist society would look like, and it turns out this is actually quite difficult. After all, who can predict how or when the revolution will happen? Will it be led by workers’ unions, the Occupy movement, or Russell Brand’s skinny jeans? Only time will tell.

We can, however, apply the basic aims of socialism to our current society, and make some broad predictions.

Let’s start, like all good students of this subject, with Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Everyone works together to produce an abundance of goods and services, which are free for consumption.

The most common argument against this is that humans are too greedy to share resources, and are doomed to constantly screw each other over for personal gain. However, as Harry Ring points out in Socialism and Individual Freedom, humans have already proved that this is not the case. Think about availability of water in developed countries: it’s abundant, easy to access, and essentially free. No one thinks twice about giving a glass to someone in need, and no one is hording it by the bucketload in their garages. What would be the point?

If anything, this is good news for Directioners. Everything recorded so far will be free! No need to spend money on the songs, or risk downloading them illegally. And no more irritating DRM issues when you purchase digital content from companies like Apple! Perfect.

And while we’re talking about overly controlling corporations – you can kiss those goodbye too. As Hannah Sell argued in 21st Century Socialism in 2006: “a socialist economy would have to be a planned economy. This would involve bringing all of the big corporations, which control around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under working-class control.”

No longer would moguls like Rupert Murdoch control politicians and newspapers simultaneously. And Simon Cowell’s label, Syco Music, will be in the hands of the people. So as long as we decide we still want music from the boys, future albums might not be ruled out either – overthrowing record companies doesn’t mean burning their equipment, after all.

Now, I know that a lot of people are sceptical about socialism. One of the most common arguments is that Russia already tried it, and it failed. That is why a sustainable socialist future must be one based on democracy.

Sell explains: “Nationally, regionally and locally – at every level – elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. Therefore, if the people who had elected them did not like what their representative did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.”

Once again, things are looking pretty good for the loveable lads. After all, they lost the X-Factor final in 2010 – they’re no strangers to the power of the people. So far, I’m feeling good about the prospects of having the cherry on top of my revolutionist cake.

The difficulty, of course, comes when we stop examining socialist utopias, and start questioning One Direction. This is, after all, a band that rose to popularity by exploiting young girls’ insecurities. Although What Makes You Beautiful sounds like a call to arms against the evils of a sexist beauty industry telling women they’re nothing without their products, sadly it just replaces one form of sexism with another. It’s the approval of men that gives your life meaning, argues the song – not make up or self-belief.

There’ll be no place for sexism after the revolution, or any other oppression of minorities. As The Socialist Organizer puts it: “With the end of the patriarchal family and capitalist scapegoating will vanish the basis for discrimination against gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender folks.” The same goes for oppressive systems of racism, ableism, and ageism.

But if 1D gain most of their fans by reinforcing heteronormative narratives in which women are no more than mysterious, beautiful enigmas for men to win, won’t the magic be gone? Half the fun is that when they make broad, generalising descriptions about what makes “you” special, they really could mean you.

It’s true: One Direction would no longer be writing songs which depend on a patriarchal system. However, as the writer and activist John Molyneux points out, art will not die under socialism. In fact, it will find itself flourishing once free from corporate direction and the need to appeal to mass markets. Creativity will grow, and 1D – if they decide to go on making music now that it won’t make them richer than other people – will be free to record the same upbeat tunes and catchy hooks they always have. It’s just that, as my good friend Bethan put it, they will “sound like Feminist Ryan Gosling set to music” instead.

Viva la révolution!