Saturday, 24 March 2012


(originally posted on Retrograde magazine's website)

I remember the first time I listened to Biggie Smalls. I was on the verge of becoming that thing that every teenager dreads and is secretly excited by at the same time – twenty years of age. I was finishing up my second year of university, and I was broke and angry and disillusioned by life outside of my tiny, working class hometown. I felt like everyone had more money than me, came from richer families than me, had received better educations than me, and therefore I spent the majority of the year (and my life at university, actually) precariously balancing between feeling terribly inferior and alone, and extremely bitter. Then I heard ‘Juicy’ for the first time.

At first it seems as though it was a chance meeting, this collision of my late-teenaged self and 90’s hip-hop, but looking back at the grand old age of 22, it’s clear that we were always meant to be. Hip-hop artists in the early 90’s wrote powerful, angry songs about fighting the power and growing up poor and not accepting the place society wants you to have in the world. I can’t relate to being black, or growing up black, and to suggest that anything in my life would ever come close to it would be ridiculous and insulting. However, hip-hop artists rapped about money and class and the role of the poor in society in a way that no white artists I’m aware of have ever really come close to, at least not to me. The working class need a voice, and 90’s hip-hop gave us it.

It’s a well-know theory that the age of fourteen is when we first start breaking away from what our parents and siblings and friends like and start forming our own interests and opinions about society and the different types of culture it offers us, especially in regards to music (I’d like to thank Dr Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds fame for educating me on this). Therefore, the music we listen to at this age influences us in a way that nothing else quite ever will, and not just in regards to something simple as our taste. It’s the first thrill of doing something for yourself, of making a deliberate step towards becoming a certain type of person, of becoming someone who is complex and flawed and human. When I was fourteen, I dyed my hair pink, badly. I read a lot of Chuck Palahniuk books. I kept a livejournal and wrote bad prose and wore a lot of black (some things never change). These things have all greatly influenced the person I have become and am still becoming, in the way that the friends you have at that age influence you in a way that no one else ever really will. It’s not because everything back then was realer, or purer, in the way that nostalgia can sometimes make us believe – it’s not because your friends were any better, or because music was any better, or because society is falling apart and culture is going downhill and everything just sucks now. It’s because it was happening for the first time.

When I was fourteen, I didn’t listen to hip-hop. I listened to The Smiths and let Morrissey guide me through teenage life in a humdrum town, where the days seemed endless. I listened to Bright Eyes and related to Conor Oberst’s angst about youth and growing up and the future in a way that almost scared me – my life plan for a while was to move to Omaha and work at Saddle Creek. I listened to the Manic Street Preachers and became angry and disillusioned with politics and England and money, as well as wearing a lot of eyeliner and leopard print. These bands were my soundtrack during my most formative years, and at the time they defined me and my beliefs and led me through the jungle of adolescence in a way that my family and my teachers and all of those teen-orientated websites and books and pamphlets couldn’t. They taught me about the real world and how to navigate it.

There is something about this list that needs to be recognised, though. The musicians who guided me through perhaps one of the most important times of my life all have one thing in common – they’re white males. I am a white female. Although I am not privileged in some ways, I am privileged in the fact that I grew up with internet access and books and the ability to listen to and appreciate music. So with all of these privileges at my disposal, why did I end up allowing myself to be guided by the one group that has all of the privileges I do not have? The one group that society is under the power of and at the same time caters to?
It’s easy to place the blame on oneself, but I think the root of the problem lies deeper than this. The majority of music young people are exposed to is more often than not written, performed, and controlled by white males. Although, according to our theory, we make our own musical choices at the age of fourteen, we are still young and susceptible to outside influences. We may feel as though we are completely in control of what we choose to listen to, but the reality is that this choice is still made within the context of the society we belong to – and this is a society in which white men rule the roost, so to speak.

Therefore, when considering the context in which modern music is presented, it is important to recognise how misogyny is generated and perpetuated due to it. Obviously, the fact that society is fundamentally a man’s world is in itself a sign of the misogyny that women face every day, and this is represented in the music we listen to. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of misogyny in music is how reluctant we are to attribute it to white men.

As I stated earlier in this article, I have a lot of love and respect for 90’s hip-hop. I also consider myself a strong feminist. The one question I always hear when I inform people of the above two facts is, without fail, “How can you be a feminist when you listen to music that is as misogynistic as hip-hop?” I have a lot of problems with this response, and what it tells us about the society we live in. I’m not going to deny for one second that some hip-hop is misogynistic – to do so is counter-productive, because it is very true that some hip-hop music does focus on belittling women and therefore reinforces the idea of men as being superior. The point isn’t that hip-hop music is not misogynistic – the point is that it is no more misogynistic than other genres of music, but is constantly scapgoated and focused on as being the only music that is misogynistic and therefore dangerous towards women. I believe that misogyny is just as rife in other genres of music, but because this music is created by white men in a society that favours white men, it is not picked up on. It is a lot easier to blame the minority instead, because it is not the minority who controls the context in which we listen to music. It is easy to blame a black man for misogyny towards women being perpetuated through music, because it is simpler than going against what society tells us.

So what is the logic for hip-hop being universally referred to, and thought of, as misogynistic? Firstly, one of the main points that is brought up is the language which is used towards women in many hip-hop songs – “they’re always calling women bitches! Or hoes!” should really have been copywrited by now, I hear it so often. The fact is that, yes, a lot of hip-hop songs do use language that is potentially derogatory when referring to women. However, it is important to also consider the cultural context in which the word is being used, and who it is being used by. Many female rappers have reclaimed words such as “bitch” and therefore refer to themselves using the word, and will also sometimes accept being called it by men in songs, as long as it is on the terms they have laid out. Obviously not all uses of potentially derogatory words in hip-hop are by women and not all of them are intended to be complimentary. However, although no man has the right to refer to a woman as a bitch or a whore or a hoe (which in itself is a gross stereotype of most hip-hop music), and no woman should be subjected to it against her wishes, the sometimes-explicit use of the words in hip-hop songs makes it a lot easier for us to identify what is and is not misogynistic. This might sound like a strange thing to include in an article that wishes to convince you that hip-hop is no more misogynistic than any other genre of music, but it is important to consider when discussing why the majority of white, male music is not seen as being misogynistic.

So, hip-hop is widely considered to be misogynistic because of the language many artists use to describe women, including women themselves. What could be more misogynistic than a woman being referred to as a bitch or a hoe? Well, at least if a woman is described using a word that is widely thought of as sexist and derogatory, it is easy for us and most of the general public to recognise it as being offensive and not accept it. However, not all misogyny is presented through a nasty word or name-calling, and this is the biggest issue I have with hip-hop being referred to as more misogynistic than other genres. I believe that other genres of music, mostly represented by white men, are so full of misogyny that is internalised and accepted in society, and this is dangerous because it means that we are not always aware of it.

So if misogyny in hip-hop is mostly presented through the language used, then how is it presented in other genres? Internalised misogyny is not as simple as a woman being referred to in a negative way – instead it reinforces ideas about how women should act, specifically in regards to men, in a way that is subtle and not always recognisable as being negative. The popular-in-2006-on-myspace genre of music known as ‘emo’, or emotional hardcore, is especially responsible for encouraging this way of thinking. I love Brand New, but think of ‘Jude Law and a Semester Abroad’ (sample lyric: “and even if her plane crashes tonight/she’ll find some way to disappoint me/by not burning in the wreckage/or drowning at the bottom of the sea”). Jawbreaker are an amazing band and most of Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are perfect to me, but think of ‘Sluttering’. Dashboard Confessional were the first band I listened to on my walkman in 2004, but think of everything Chris Carrabba has ever written. What do these artists all have in common? They are intelligent, middle class, white males who comment sharply and succinctly on social issues and politics and heartbreak and adolescence (Chris Carrabba only gets credit for the last two, though).However, they also rely on the idea of women as being one-dimensional and almost fictional in their attributes and identities. Take Brand New first, for example. In ‘Jude Law and a Semester Abroad’, Jesse Lacey focuses on how the girl mentioned has wronged him, how if a plane crash didn’t bring her imminent death then it would be purely to disappoint him. Basically, the female character exists only as a catalyst for his anger and heartbreak, not as a real person. The same can be seen in ‘Sluttering’ and perhaps most explicitly in many Dashboard Confessional songs. Females are either described as being weak and simpering, purely as a love interest for the protagonist, or as cold-hearted and evil, the source of his pain and frustration. The problem with these representations of women is that they are just not realistic. A woman does not exist purely to appease a man or to justify his anger or hurt. Women are not either one thing or another – we are more than the stereotypes we are presented as in modern music.

Another issue that arises when discussing misogyny in hip-hop is, inevitably (and rightly so), regarding race. Is it any coincidence that hip-hop music is mostly written and performed by black men? It is easier for a society in which white men hold the most power to accept that it is not ‘one of us’ perpetuating these ideas. It is easier for white people to accept the idea of a black man encouraging violence and oppression against their sisters and daughters than it is to accept that it might be a lot closer to home than that. A lot of this is to do with extremely racist connotations and stereotypes, the idea that black hip-hop artists are all gangbangers and live in ghettos, promoting the kind of lifestyles that respectable white men would never lead. Sadly, it’s easy for society to justify this extremely racist train of thought, as it is a result of a misguided attempt to fight oppression. It’s easier to accept it than it is to challenge it, and this is where we are going wrong.

This is not a denial that misogyny exists in hip-hop. This is not an excuse for the vile language that is used to shame and oppress women by some hip-hop artists. This is not a condemnation of every song written by a white man. This is a wake up call to everyone who believes the stereotype that misogyny is only perpetuated and generated by black men, that calling a woman a bitch or a hoe is the only way in which she can be dismissed or oppressed, that our opinions and choices are made fairly and freely and are not influenced by a society that is white and inherently misogynistic. This is, to paraphrase Biggie Smalls, to all the ladies in the place with style and grace who refuse to accept what society tells us we should accept, and who refuse to accept misogyny only when it is well-hidden and sung to us instead of rapped.


(originally posted on Retrograde magazine's website)

The internet is full of ghosts. From the deepest, darkest, dustiest corners of the World Wide Web to the welcoming home page of your browser, the internet is the ultimate haunting ground if you’re willing to suspend your hard-earned belief that ghosts only exist in horror films. These ghosts aren’t caricatures, like Casper and his merry band of followers. They’re not even really paranormal, in that sense that there are no reports of online poltergeists or heavy demands for browser-exorcisms. This is haunting of a different nature, and the ghosts are of a different nature. Because, after all, what do we really mean when we use the term ‘haunted’? These days, it’s obvious that it has evolved into something less to do with the paranormal and more to do with human nature. We are haunted by death every day but not because we have a direct hotline that links us to ghosts and ghouls and all things terrifying - instead we are haunted in ways that, to those who have not yet become part of the club, seem to be almost imperceptible.
One of the strongest examples of this daily haunting comes in the form of the internet. If you are reading this, if you are browsing the internet right now, then you are probably a member of some kind of social networking site. If you are a member of a social networking site (be it Facebook, Myspace, or even Bebo – but if it is Bebo, then ouch) then you will have friends on that site. If your number of friends on that site equals or betters the number of friends of the average user, then I can guarantee that you are being haunted.

It might take you a while to notice it. You might come across it firstly in the form of a status update about someone’s granddad, someone’s dog, a friend of a friend, which you scroll past too quickly. This kind of ghost is easy to ignore. Then, slowly, it starts inching closer. An acquaintance from school invites you to a memorial group for a mutual friend. Facebook pages dedicated to those who have died in tragic accidents are mentioned in the local newspaper, alongside an obituary. When you google the names of local deaths out of morbid curiousity, you come across blogspot posts, livejournal entries, tumblogs, and tweets before any definitive news articles appear. You’re surrounded by ghosts.

Many people believe that this modernisation of grief is due to the iron grip technology has on the world, and proof that even the starkest human emotions are not immune to it. Borne from this belief is also the opinion that, because they are expressed online in a public setting, these feelings of grief are not completely natural and instead are somewhat doctored and dramatised for their online audience. To assume this is not only incorrect but also dangerous, and I think that to reduce online memorials to this is doing the movement (and I believe it definitely is a movement, for better or worse) a great disservice. I do not believe that online memorials have been created as a means of competition, of showing who is ‘grieving the hardest’. I do not believe that they have become popularised purely due to morbid curiosity, although it definitely is a huge factor. I do not believe that a person creates an online memorial simply because the internet is there and we have all become slaves to the proverbial machine. I do not believe that grief which is shared via a social networking site is any less real or deeply felt than grief which is internalised and hidden away (the ‘stiff upper lip’ school of thought) - in fact, I think that one of the main reasons young people in particular turn to the internet when grieving is that it allows them the chance to take hold of it and manage it in a way that is comfortable and familiar to them. I believe that online memorials are simply a modernisation of the ultimate ghost, the thing that haunts every one of us on a daily basis – our fear of death, and our ultimately futile attempts to control it.

When discussing death and the internet, it is impossible not to mention the behemoth of online memorials, In the same way that many people can recall exactly where they were during Princess Diana’s death, or the falling of the twin towers, I can remember exactly where I was when I discovered mydeathspace. I was eighteen years old, fresh out of state school, in my first year of university. I was living behind a book shop on Gower Street and it was the beginning of a new year. I was sitting at my tiny desk, with the Ethernet cable carefully balanced between the wall and my laptop. I can’t remember what exactly I was doing, but I know I’d been reading about the Columbine shootings when the now-familiar skull banner appeared on my screen. I clicked it and my life changed. is a website and forum dedicated to chronicling and discussing death. In the archive section, you’ll find a depressingly endless list of people who have died in specific ways. They each have their own page, listing at minimum their name, age, date of birth, and a link to their social networking site (hence the name mydeathspace). If you head over to the forum, you will find thread after thread discussing the saddest and strangest deaths.

My discovery of mydeathspace hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d never been so aware and terrified of my own mortality. The majority of people listed on mydeathspace were my age or younger, and having the links to their social networking sites provided for me meant that I couldn’t ignore them or write them off as another teen tragedy. Mydeathspace offers a level of intimacy that no either grieving process can provide – social networking sites are often no-holds-barred, and comments from friends and family provide another dimension to the deceased that an obituary in a newspaper never will. This is part of the popularity of mydeathspace, and is also where the controversy lies.
It’s no coincidence that mydeathspace has a Hate Mail section, and a brief glance through the forum only confirms that some people are not very happy at all with the existence of such a website. Mixed in with discussions between users and comments hoping that the deceased will rest in peace are angry postings from family members, friends, and locals, defending the deceased and demanding that the website be taken immediately. There are outcries of offense, of not wanting to read ‘that’ about their child/friend/brother/sister written by a stranger on the internet. This is where part of the main controversy lies – in the idea that by modernising death, by archiving pages after pages of dead youth’s facebooks, mydeathspace is somehow trivialising what happened to them. It’s easy to understand the parents’ point of view – some tragic deaths are horribly exploited on the internet, as in the case of Nikki Catsouras. There are websites that sadly do exist in order to trivialise death and jeer at people who have died and their families, but mydeathspace is not one of them. Instead, I believe that this initial shock and disgust at finding a friend or family member resting within mydeathspace’s archive is linked into our basic human fear of death. With websites like mydeathspace, we are confronted with death head on. It’s lined up and packaged neatly in front of us, archived in black and white. It reinforces the everyday brutality of death, contrasted harshly against the fragility of life. It’s hard to bear. Seeing passport sized photographs of people who could have been so much more, row after row after row of them, is hard to bear. But death exists. It is an absolutely certainty in life. What happens when we choose to ignore it, when we choose to x out and close the page? What kind of memorial are we leaving behind then?

The other aspect of controversy that mydeathspace brings is not just the general nature of the website, but the specific content. Most people think that sex is the last taboo, but I disagree. It’s death. In this society, it would be pointless to argue against the fact that some deaths are seen as being more desirable and socially acceptable than others. Natural deaths, for example, are acceptable – they are almost comforting, as they seem to suggest that it was the deceased’s ‘time to go’. They fit in with the ideas we have of the world as being just and right. Noble deaths are also acceptable – if someone dies for their country, or whilst saving a life or helping others, the taboo of death is automatically lifted. It’s okay to talk about these deaths, because they are a representation of how good and kind the deceased was. They emphasise their best qualities, and leave a positive memory for those who knew him or her.
Other deaths, however, remain taboo because they are still not seen as socially acceptable. Deaths from drug use or overdose are often not talked about, as society still seems to have the underlying view that if someone is suffering from a drug problem or takes drugs recreationally then they are bad and wrong and therefore their death is not as much of a tragedy. Their death is unnatural and therefore undesirable, but it is not unexpected. Many of the angry comments posted by family members that I mentioned earlier appear in threads regarding a child who died through illicit drug use or overdose – it’s sad but true that many families still cover up drug-related deaths and therefore do not want this news to be readily available. There is the fear that their child will be dirtied, viewed as less valuable, and that they will be remembered as something undesirable, such as a drug addict. What these family memories (perhaps understandably) don’t realise is that mydeathspace is not passing judgement on the way in which any of these people have died. Instead, it is a place where forum members can discuss the death and try and discover what the deceased was like, via their social networking page. Mydeathspace is trying to get us to talk about death, to inform us that no death should be hidden away and viewed as shameful. Only by discussing death and the deceased can we attempt to face our fear of death.

Suicide is perhaps the most taboo death of all. Although suicide has become more widespread in the news, this does not mean that it has been accepted by society. In fact, suicide is viewed as being perhaps the most undesirable, unacceptable death of all. For most people, it goes directly against their views that life is sacred, and should be lived to the full. Society celebrates life, and it celebrates wanting to live. It sounds hyperbolic, but it is fair to say that everything that exists in our society is an attempt to preserve life, extend life, and give us a better quality of life. This is why suicide cannot be accepted. It is perhaps the saddest, hardest death to come to terms with, not only because mental illness is still so misunderstood. Depression is still seen as shameful and more of a state of mind than an illness – we are taught by society that the acceptable way to respond to depression and mental health issues is to work our way through them and ‘be strong’, which sadly reinforces the idea that depression can be beaten this way by everyone. Once again, mydeathspace does not want us to be shamed into hiding or covering up mental illness, and any death that is a result of it. By offering a forum to discuss suicides, and by linking to the social networking pages of those who have committed suicide, mydeathspace is normalising it and allowing us to see the differences between each suicide, and to understand that anyone can suffer from mental illness. Suicide needs to be more publicised in this way, a way that does not demonise or glamorise it, so that the taboo attached to it is finally removed.

Mydeathspace ultimately exists because humanity has an almost animalistic desire to control what it is scared of. Death is the final end, the giant full stop. What is said about us in death reflects who we are as people just as much as what is said about us during life does. Online memorials do not trivialise us or make us one dimensional – instead, they capture us as we were in a certain moment and they make us human. I still remember the first mydeathspace article I read. It was for a young girl, Californian, who died when she was 15 years old. Her name was Kate Persten and for days I read her myspace, her last blog entry, and comments from her friends and family. I was immersed in her life, and her myspace made me feel like I knew her, if only for a moment. It offered me a glimpse into her life, the kind of person she was, and the way she interacted with people around her. It made the loss all the more extreme.

When we read obituaries, it is often hard for us to fully connect with them and feel the impact of each death personally. Perhaps this is a good thing. Most obituaries focus on how good the deceased was, how loving, how kind. I do not doubt that any of this is true. Mydeathspace, however, focuses on more than just the words of others when offering a memorial – it allows us to briefly enter the deceased’s life, to get to know them for an hour or so. In doing this, we come to view them as more than just a collection of adjectives. We don’t view them by their full stop. We see their flaws, their bad grammar, their posed pictures and the youtube video they posted the night before it happened. We see them as human, as they were in life rather than death. What could be better than this? With a social network memorial, friends are constantly posting memories, family members are tagging baby pictures, and comments from acquaintances fill up the page on public holidays. They don’t wither like flowers at a grave. I don’t want a tombstone for these years, a sentence supposed to define me that ultimately says nothing about me. I’d rather have a Myspace.