Gordon Campbell on unemployment, Winston Peters’ low boiling point and music criticism

beyonce-taylor-On Werewolf/Scoop, I usually do two long form political columns a week. From now on, there will be an extra column each week about music and movies. But first, some late-breaking political events:

The rise in unemployment numbers for the March quarter was bigger than expected – and especially sharp amongst young job seekers. The figures still don’t include the bulk of the public service job cuts, which kicked in big time, during April. The surge in migration has boosted the ranks of the jobless, and is depressing wage growth.

As usual this government seems utterly clueless about what it has wrought.

Weirdly, having (a) more people thrown out of work and (b) smaller wage increases among he survivors is – officially – what counts as success in reducing inflation. If you systematically impoverish the workforce, it can’t spend the money it doesn’t have on the essentials at the supermarket. So prices will fall, right? Hey, be happy, people.

Right now, young people are being denied access to jobs and/or to anything like sufficient investment in skills training. Its a gloomy situation out there on the job market. Yet even as the Luxon government is throwing more and more people out of work, it is simultaneously

(a) setting punitive targets to deny people continued access to welfare benefits

(b) increasing the minimum wage for low income workers at below the rate of inflation, while MPs are pocketing huge backdated pay increases for the foreseeable

(c) cutting the funds available for skills training and

(d) and scrapping the public transport subsidies that would enable young people to afford to get to work, and/or attend job interviews.

In the process, this government is wreaking havoc on the lives and

incomes of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. The Luxon admninistration is not only cutting jobs and limiting access to welfare support at the very same time, but is choosing to do so in the context of a deepening recession. Incredible stuff.

Meanwhile, rent increases – by some estimates, they’re running at 8.6% annually – are also off the charts. Yet Housing Minister Chris Bishop has sniffily described the Greens’ call for consideration of rent controls as being “looney tunes.” That’s classic “let them eat cake” stuff from Bishop.

Peters Loses His Rag. Again.

The eternal mystery that is Winston Peters deepened on Wednesday night at Parliament, as he delivered a confusing speech that still seemed to be advocating for New Zealand’s eventual embrace of the second pillar of the AUKUS military pact.

Unfortunately, it was also a one step forward, two steps sideways speech laced with personal abuse of his critics. Peters failed to take up a golden chance to outline the government’s current perception of the costs, benefits, risks and advantages of us buying veruy expensive and ultra-sophisticated weaponry that is being explicitly targeted at our main trading partner, China.

And that’s even before we get to the impact that joining AUKUS would have on New Zealand’s relationships with the small states in the Pacific, who have barely been consulted at all about this planned Great Powers nuclear intrusion into their neighbourhood.

On Wednesday night, our famously tough talking but personally ultra-sensitive Foreign Minister also let a single, silent, elderly protester get under his skin, and rattle him. Elvis Presley (“If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place”) was invoked by Peters from the podium. The lone protester, Marie Russell, had stood up with an inoffensive small sign that, in effect, said “yes” to diplomacy, and “no” to New Zealand joinig pillar two of the AUKUS pact.

You would think that quiet advocacy for diplomacy might have found favour with a Foreign Minister giving a speech to a gathering of veteran diplomatic wallahs. But no. Peters went troppo, stopping his delivery and drawing everyone’s attention to the lone protester who – after declining invitations/orders for her to leave – has ended up copping a two year trespass ban from Parliament. (You can watch the drama unfold, get the gist of Peters speech and read Russell’s rationale for her action on this Newshub link. Stuff’s coverage of the speech/protest incident is here. The NZ Herald coverage is here.)

Hmm. A two year trespass ban from Parliament. Didn’t the Hon. Winston Peters himself initiallly cop a two year trespass ban from Parliament for consorting with the protesters occupying Parliament grounds, some of whom committed acts of violence? Yes, he did. At the time, Peters denounced that trespass order as “dictatorial behaviour” redolent of “Third World banana republics.” In his view, the authorities should have made a distinction between those engaged in peaceful protest, and those who ended up being violent.

Well, peaceful protest copped it on Wednesday night, regardless. Russell was being ignored by the audience until Peters drew attention to her. Peters seems to be splenetically incapable of tolerating dissent. Offhand, it is hard to think of a senior Cabinet Minister less capable of managing a rational debate on an issue of national importance.

Footnote One: Surely with hindsight and given his very personal empathy with those subjected to dictatorial trespass notices banning people from the seat of democracy, Peters should now intercede with Speaker Gerry Brownlee and ask him to rescind the trespass notice issued to Russell. That would be the right and proper diplomatic action to take, in the circumstances. By doing so, Peters would truly be building a bridge across troubled waters, even if – plainly – he doesn’t endorse the sounds of silence.

Footnote Two: What on earth has happened to politicians, who used

to relish the cut and thrust of heckling? On Wednesday night, Peters told Russell that his speech was not a political meeting. Really? Here was the deputy PM and Foreign Minister delivering an advocacy speech for us to continue investigating joining a controversial military pact, while speaking within the Parliamentary precinct to a gathering of diplomatic bigwigs past and present, and with his words being extensively reported by the media. Russell replied quietly “Of course it is.” And of course it was.

Footnote Three: The socio-economic (and security) costs and benefits of joining AUKUS pillar two – and the concerns being felt in Australia about its ballooning costs, vagueness on key details and uncertain future under an isolationist Trump presidency – will be revisited in detail by this column, next week.

Disclosure: Marie Russell is a friend, with whom I have a family connection.

Tortured Music Critics Department

Listening to new music these days can be like speed dating. There’s less room for gradual appreciation, and little chance of being introduced by a friend – everyone is too busy, and music recommendations are fraught, what with tastes now being so micro-niched.

Looking back, the early reviews of Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter and Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets Department albums have provided good examples of the cultural acceleration I’m talking about. First responses to new music follow a typical pattern: a quick click through to find the bangers/earworms, a glance at a few reviews, and if immediate gratification isn’t forthconing, its tempting to just speed on to the next album that’s generating buzz. Slow burning affections have become relatively rare.

Spotify now makes those ten second click/swipe verdicts easy to indulge. It is no way to listen to music, as Jessica Karl recently argued in an influential essay on Bloomberg. Where’s the delight, she asked,

in treating an album like a college paper we’re cramming to complete by the morning? It is becoming necessary either to totally avoid the media hot takes beforehand, or to digest the music immediately – which, as Karl says, is about as pleasant and rewarding as trying to inhale a cheeseburger in one bite.

Much of the time, the listening part of the process merely provides the talking points needed to join in the social discourse. As in (a) how dare Beyonce rewrite the lyrics for Dolly’s “Jolene” or (b) how cool was it that Queen B rewrote the lyrics for Dolly’s “Jolene ?” At times, we seem to be living a variation on this prophetic scene from the (great, BTW) 1990 movie Metropolitan, in which critic Lionel Trilling and writer Jane Austen both got put to rights:

Owning v Renting

Perhaps this is only remotely an issue for people who grew up owning music rather than renting it. Back in the day, buying an album carried an inbuilt motivation to find (and eventually cherish) less obviously rewarding tracks. Albums could end up being loved, weaker interludes and all. Ownership also enabled the cementing in place of mis-heard lyrics, something the digital lyric sheet has all but eliminatcd.

Three weeks on, Swift’s massive fan base is still consuming her new album in the grand old timey, obsessive fashion. As fans have always done, they seem to be absorbing the music at depths way beyond the hot-takes-written to-deadline rash of initial reviews.

Even to relative outsiders to Swift fandom, one of the striking aspects of Tortured Poets Department has been the sharp distance that Swift puts between herself and the judgemental inclinations of her fans, especially regarding her affair with Matty Healy of the 1975. “ He was chaos/he was revelry/bedroom eyes like a remedy…” ) That lyric is from “ But Daddy I Love Him” and the track offers more along the same lines :

I’ll tell you something right now

I’d rather burn my whole life down

Than listen to one more second of all this griping and moaning

I’ll tell you something about my good name

Its mine alone to disgrace

I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing

God save the most judgemental creeps

Who say they want what’s best for me…

And that’s not even the harshest lines from that track. (Those would be when the song’s narrator falsely tells her parents she’s pregnant, just to see their faces.) Here and elsewhere, the album re-calibrates much of the personal, friend-like connection that Swift has cultivated so brilliantly with her fans. Friends, I guess, can argue, too.

Rules of allegiance

To delve back into the ancient past…pre-Internet, musical status and fan allegiance used to hinge on verdicts handed down by a very limited number of cultural gatekeepers – NME, Rolling Stone, Creem, Melody Maker, Rip It Up, New York Rocker, and later, Pitchfork. Digital proliferation has swept away those old critical fiefdoms. It has also – as elsewhere in the 24/7 news cycle – sped up the cycle of response. With that latest Swift album, the spin cycle reached comical velocity.

Jessica Karl has paintted a pretty forbidding picture of what a music reviewer’s paid gig involves these days. Tortured Poets Department dropped at night in most US time zones, but a coherent response relevant to the Swiftian cultural narrative still had to be online by morning at the latest. Things then got significantly worse. Around 2am ET, what everyone thought was a 16 track album suddenly had another 15 tracks added to it. Aarggh! Many of those additions (eg ‘Cassandra” “The Manuscript”) referenced events as far back as her early 20s, to beefs with say, Kanye West and the Kardashians, and to her phase of older guy relationships.

The album review deadlines didn’t change, though. No wonder so many hot takes concluded that (a) Swift “needed an editor” and (b) the album sounded kind of monochromatic, whch was widely blamed on usual collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner and (c) the album was deemed lacking in obvious bangers like “Anti-Hero” from Midnights. Too long, too samey, too fan serving. All up, the response sounded like a critical cry for mercy. A just universe should not be expecting anyone to knock out a credible response to a 31 track album overnight.

With a few notable exceptions, the hot takes took a familiar route with Swift. The reviewers reviewed the lyric sheet and organised the track listing into songs about boyfriends past and present, with songs allocated to sad sack depressive Joe Alwyn (“So Long, London” “The Black Dog,” “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” “Ioml”) bad boy Matty Healy (“Fortnight” “Fresh Out The Slammer” “ I Can Fix Him”“But Daddy”) amid generral speculation about the hapless Travis Kelce. He shouts at his football coach, she shouts at him, according to unimpeachable sources like Reddit.

No doubt over the years, Swift has leaned into“dear diary” confessional narratives. Et for music critics, it is becomiing a creepy and reductive exercise. Not even obsessive Bob Dylan fans carve up the master’s oeuvre into songs about his succession of girlfriends/wives/muses/mothers of his children (a) Suze Rotolo (b) Joan Baez (c) Sara Lownds (d) Helena Spring and (e) Carolyn Dennis to name a few, although you could probably compile a fairly accurate list of Bobsongs along those lines.

In this case…one theme of the album was the transition from coping with a depressive partner, to having a relationship with a hedonist i.e. it was thereapeutic, but also anger-engendering in a different way as the work requiired to turn the relationship into something sustainable became evident. Ultimately, these songs (and impulses) function far better as relatable universals, rarher than as confessional gossip, pure and simple. Plus, “Fortnight” is a woozy, dreamy kind of banger.

Footnote One : On Tortured Poets Department, the ascendancy of the lyrics over melody- and the mocking hunour of many of the observations –reminded me a lot of Mark Kozelek’s Benji album. For better or worse, Kozelek refused on that album to keep churning out lovely melodies for his fan base, forever. He began sharing– extensively- his increasingly misanthropic views of humanity, and quickly became insufferable. (He released an eight minute song about a possum trapped behind a radiator.)

Footnote Two: The contrast with the reception for this year’s best reviewed alternative album – Diamond Jubilee by the Canadian band Cindy Lee – is instructive. Without pandering, Diamond Jubilee rifles through and up-ends any number of classic music genres of the past 60 years, while retaining a chilly DIY, under-produced, deliberately under-realised distance from all of them.

Initially, the accolades for Diamond Jubilee were triggered by a rare 9.2 out of 10 review in Pitchfork, but even boomer sites like Aquarium Drunkard have hailed it. By (a) evoking the faniliar but also (b) keeping its emotional distance, Diamond Jubilee poses its listeners a key challenge: are you smart enough for it ? Are you willing to meet its reticence more than half way? That approach leads to a paradox relevant to what Jessica Karl was saying about how we now listen to music. One album flatters its audience. The other album criticises the fan base that’s been carefully cultivated over the past 15 years. No prize for guessing which one is being seen to be more daring, and more experimental.