Rachel: "People on the Internet can get angry about anything."
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I lasted three weeks at the call centre, in the end; probably the highlight of my last day was the pensioner who called in to told me that with her heart complaint these price rises would probably kill her, and that it would be my personal fault. I spent most of that day reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. The campaign we were on was being ended early; people had stopped calling by the end of the second week, to some extent; by the end of the third, we’d less than one call an hour. So the following Monday would have been my last day, except that I was told I had a one hundred per cent rating on my calls, (as were, I think, about 10-20% of the intake,) and so they wanted to spend the Monday running assessments to see if I were “suited to any other roles.” Thankfully I’d been offered something mildly less tedious to start that day (in a mailroom (the only way out of the mailroom is up!)) and so the temptation to actually go in and be assessed was pretty minimal. Which is good: I mean, I probably would have done: out of that whole apathy-as-a-form-of-penance mental dynamic, and because it included a maths test, and who doesn’t love a maths test.
The people at the centre seemed to split entirely down the middle into decent human beings and call-centre lifers who seemed compromised in terms of having a self or recognising other people as existing; viz., a lot of these latter seemed just incapable of navigating from one side of a room to another with respect to the people in it, just would walk into or through you and then stop and glare at you as though it were your fault. Probably the best illustration of the bone-felt weariness of the place came from our trainer’s last words on the first day I went in, where the necessary soft skills to deal with aggressive customers were taught with reference to the Mountain of Conflict, which, when sketched on a whiteboard for us, looked like this:
But, then, he said, it has a tree at the summit, thus:
And then the foothills of Dispute and Resolution were to be covered with a sort of vague scrubby brushland, thus:
But here was the thing: it seemed, the vibe I got was, that this was something the guy (his name was Greg, I think) had come up with, one day, as his Last Defiant Gesture, that he was going to draw the Badly Drawn Whiteboard Penis of Resignation and walk out of the call centre a free man; and that, instead, someone had said “that’s good, that is, a bit of the laugh at the end; you should do this at the end of all your training sessions,” and that this was thus the tenth or fiftieth or five-thousandth sad penis he’d drawn; that how to draw the Funny Penis was just there in muscle memory, and his face fell as his hand outlined it for him, almost against his bidding.
When I think about Lorde and “Royals” at this point I basically think about two questions:
- What does it say about Culture Right Now that enough people liked the song enough to make it a hit?
- What does it say about the people who like “Royals” that they like “Royals,” assuming they like “Royals” because they think it sticks it to something or other?
For a while there I had a question zero of “what does it mean that a major record company released this song as a single” but it looks like the song’s success was more or less viral, driven by listener interest. There’s also the question of “is this song problematic?” but at this point I feel like it’s been asked and answered pretty well—which is not to say that it isn’t important, just that I don’t know there’s too much else to add beyond the good work already done and distributed. I was pretty bugged by all this stuff at first too, but came around to the feeling that a) given everything we know about Lorde at this point (very young, very talented, very at the beginning of a career) the benefits of the song largely outweigh the drawbacks, i.e. I would rather have someone in her position engaging with these issues and fucking up than not engaging at all, and b) most listeners are parsing it as a protest against mainstream culture rather than black culture, which while not dismissing the significant critiques (I still can’t stand to listen to the song too much, honestly) maybe indicates that we should privilege the “mainstream culture is oppressive” reading of the song.
I don’t quite know how to answer the two above questions, honestly, and maybe people have but I haven’t been keeping up very well recently (which is also why I haven’t been writing very much). I think #1 is a big one, given the recent trend of hit songs that engage in direct critique (rather than a veiled, ironic critique like Scritti Polittit’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” or something) of the culture in which the song appears. Between this and Goddamn Fucking Macklemore it seems to be a thing the audience has an appetite for right now. You can definitely make a good, strong argument that this is veiled racism, but I think there are other possibilities, too. It’s weird because I don’t agree with Lorde and Macklemore’s critiques terribly much (fashion and big cities feel like libratory forces to me) but I begrudgingly like that they’re out there. I feel uncomfortable writing them off because I get the feeling they could be the start of a good, positive trend. Right now the market for music has massively shrunk and yet “unlikely song is a hit” is still a major news story, and so less down-the-middle music can become a hit (on lower sales than ever before) and then be publicized for being a hit. Which if you believe in music as a subversive force in any way (even if you shudder at the phrase “subversive force,” which lord knows I do) should be a positive development. But is the appetite only for a certain kind of critique? Could a catchy and personally-felt protest against sexism or White Ppl find purchase in music, given that anti-homophobia and anti-materialism ones have? It seems especially likely given how TV shows have become suddenly much more interested in (non-confrontationally) representing difference—Glee is the obvious one, but it’s in lots of new shows like Elementary, Sleepy Hollow, etc. Are things changing, and if so, why are they changing in this way? (These particular issues, these particular avenues.)
Which leaves open the question of how we should feel about people who feel proud of themselves for liking “Royals” for its subversive message, even though its subversive message is rife with issues. My own feeling right now is that after years of angrily decrying rock music and other musics White Ppl like in college for claiming to promote Revolution and Fighting the Man while really being status quo ante, I think maybe that this is just one of the qualities inherent to the genre, a thing that you have to like in order to like the music. Part and parcel. Just like fictionalized romance is inherent to pop and fictionalized crime is inherent to rap, fictionalized revolution is inherent to rock, and if I’m OK with the former two I should certainly be OK with the latter. They’re theatrical gestures rather than instruction manuals, and effective ones at that. “Royals” isn’t rock music, of course, but maybe the same principle applies. If people like “Royals” because it seems to be subversive, even if it isn’t, maybe that has a value of its own. Maybe it’s better than people not liking music for appearing to be subversive. Maybe we shouldn’t read these things just literally, since people generally don’t take the literal meanings from art. Maybe there’s an important symbolic function there too.
Anyway, I don’t know; these are certainly open questions. A lot of this rests on the idea that shitty individual instances are OK if they support a positive larger goal, and if that goal is “more people being anti-mainstream / pro-subversion” I’m not convinced that’s necessarily good in and of itself; Sticking it to the Man motivates the Tea Party just as much as it motivates Occupy, after all.
Every time I see one of those things on the internet where someone has made a ridiculous request of some service worker (“draw an elephant on my pizza box,” etc.) and the service worker has then fulfilled said request I don’t really know how to feel, because I don’t know whether the worker regarded the request as a) a delightful respite from the otherwise monotonous drudgery of their daily tasks or b) a painful imposition over and above their existing grind. Is it an Amelie-like bolt of whimsy that enlivened their day or just another crack of the whip from a system that casts them aside unless they fulfill the most unreasonable and picayune of customer requests. I feel this way about a lot of things on the internet, honestly.