Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Great Lyrics Debate

There are many tricky dilemmas that face us in this spoilt first world palace in which we live. Apple vs Android. Steiner vs Sudberry. Drinking vs driving. However, if there is a bigger conundrum facing us than how to be a feminist, pro-homo, peaceful kinda gal (or guy) who listens to and love the lyrics of pop and hip hop, I don't know what it is.

I am the most ardent of ardent feminists. If feminism were a person, I'd feed her chocolates, brush her hair and give her a good seeing to on a regular basis. I am proud to be a feminist; it makes me feel whole, excited, connected.

I am also a pop and hip hop DJ. When I'm listening to hip hop music, it feels as though it is the very blood that is coursing through my veins, giving me life, energy and joy. Good pop music invigorates me, makes me feel whole, excited, connected.

I am also a fierce collector of words. Lyrics are my greatest weakness. I mine them for meaning and see myself in their nuances. I pride myself on knowing every pop lyric I have ever heard, and a few I've only heard about. However, this creates problems for my ideological self.

For once, I am actually part of the current pop zeitgeist in terms of what is Now Playing in my head. I cannot resist the current UK number one All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor. What a fantastic piece of pop. And, I initially thought, what an empowering piece of feminism as well, fighting the popular narrative of size 0 body fascism. Go, Meghan! My two great loves married in three minutes and 18 seconds of perfection.


Having listened a little more closely, I started to become troubled. I still love the song, don't get me wrong, but I am much less of a fan of these lines:

Yeah my mama she told me don't worry about your size
She says, "boys like a little more booty to hold at night"
You know I won't be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that's what you're into then go ahead and move along

Johanna, I hear you cry - what's wrong with that? Teaching the larger ladies to love themselves has gotta be a good thing, right? Well, yes, right, I certainly agree with that. But teaching those ladies to love themselves at the expense of smaller women? Propagating the myth that women can only be thin or clever, never both? Assuring women that if their size is ok with men, it should be ok with them? None of this sits right with me. Don't be hating on other sisters, no matter what their shape or size. How is calling people 'skinny bitches,' as the song goes on to do, any better or worse than 'fat cow'?

As I said, I still heart the song, but I would heart it a whole hell of a lot more if the target of criticism was the oppressive patriarchy that enforces models of beauty, not other women who happen to look different. Thus, poor old Meghan Trainor is told off in my head and order is restored.

This train of thought led me on to a whole other argument which gets me into a right terrible tangle. It was suggested to me recently on a bulletin board I used to frequent that I have different standards for women who write lyrics than I do for men.

We were debating the merits of the frankly horrific Lady Gaga song Do What U Want. I heard the song on Jonathan Ross or some such and was genuinely appalled, in a writing-to-Points-of-View kinda manner, by the refrain of 'Do what you want to my body' repeated ad infinitum.

A closer inspection of the lyrics reveals that this is a (somewhat tenuous, I would argue) metaphor for the press; they can do what they want to her body (though surely she means image or reputation?) but they won't take her heart and soul. A commendable sentiment, when seen in its whole.

I felt, though, that it was pretty damn irresponsible of a female pop music star, whose fan base is partially made up of little kids, to be singing 'Do what you want to my body' over and over again. It seemed to me that this is encouraging the culture of women as being nothing more than sex toys for men; and encouraging it from the inside, in a way that will make little girls start to doubt their right to own their bodies and to say no if other people do things to those bodies that they don't like. The little kids aren't necessarily gonna grok the wider context. They will hear the chorus and start singing it back and all hell may break loose. Won't somebody please think of the children? I write this paragraph and fear I'm turning into Mary Whitehouse in my old age, but the song just felt so wrong to me.

(Of course, I am aware of the possibility of some bias here. I don't like Gaga. If Madonna had been singing the same song, I'm sure I would find a way to justify my love. However, I really don't think Madonna would place herself in a position of such passivity. It's not her style.)

My friend put it to me that I expect women to be role models in their lyrics and expect no such thing from men. This is not equality. I argued against it when the accusation was made, but I have to admit there is some truth to it. I listen to Pharrell Williams ('Mister! Look at your girl! She loves it! I can see it in her eyes'), Jay Z ('I got this model chick that don't cook or clean, but she dress her ass off and her walk is mean'), Beenie Man ('I want a dude who will tie me to the fan, a thug that can handle his biz like a man')*, Booty Bass ('Shake that ass, bitch, and let me see what you've got') and so many more. And I (uncomfortably, for sure, but still) write these words off as being funny; too ridiculous to take seriously. But let's be real; whatever the crimes of Meghan and Gaga are, they are clearly as nothing compared to that collection.

Several explanations occur to me here.

Firstly, I wonder if there is something about such blatantly misogynistic lyrics coming at me from men that I have normalised and just come to expect. Not that any of the men in my actual life talk to me in anything approaching this way, I should point out. But hatred of women - violence against them, objectification of them, minimising of them - is so prevalent in the wider culture that perhaps I have internalised some of this hatred and just think it's ok for men to talk to about me and the missus in this way. Certainly, if I hear music that is homophobic, I don't laugh it off. I hated myself for my love of Guns n Roses as a teenager and always skipped past One In a Million with a sick feeling in my heart. I had to turn Jedi Mind Tricks off the other day because all I could hear was hating on the homos. And the gay thing really blots my otherwise unending love of Eminem, whereas Kim, his song about killing his wife, I can forgive. Homophobia? Hell no. But a bit of light sexism? Ach, what does it matter, between friends.

Secondly, it can't ignored that all the men whose lyrics I have listed above are black, whereas the two female pop stars I've listed are white. At least, I'm assuming Booty Bass are black... I don't actually know. This may be partially cos I like a lot of black music and am less keen on the sort of white male music where one might encounter sexism - metal, I imagine? Punk? I dunno. There's not a hell of a lot of sexism in Simon and Garfunkel or Jack White. (Nick Cave, Guardian readers' darling, is another matter with his murder ballads, of course.)

However, I am also forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that it might be an ugly form of prejudice within me. Do I think it's ok for black, male musicians not to be as sophisticated in their thinking as I expect white female musicians to be? If so, what the hell does that say about me? Really, nothing good.

I haven't reached a conclusion. I welcome your comments, although I'm a little scared of them as well. But in the mean time, perhaps I'll try to concentrate my DJing efforts more on the artists who make me dance and make me proud, because they are out there. Ms Dynamite, Public Enemy, Lily Allen, Mike Skinner, Kate Tempest, KRS-one, Nas. Male, female, black, white... those guys - I salute them.

*It should be noted that this is a female backing singer on Beenie Man's song. Although given his other prejudices, it's rather amusing me that it sounds like he wants to be tied to the fan and given some biz by a man.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

I made a deal with god

Dear blog fans... as you probably know, I am the indoorsy type. I'd rather watch a sitcom than go surfing. I'd rather cook by gas hob than by camp fire. I'm as delighted by a beautiful sunset as the next person, but do tend to think they're best viewed through restaurant windows, with a delicious cocktail in hand.

My brother, however, has a dedication to staying indoors that makes me look like Steve Irwin, so I was more than a little surprised when he rang me up about six months ago, asking for my tips on how to buy concert tickets that are guaranteed to sell out in seconds. When it transpired that the tickets in question were for Kate Bush, I was delighted. I had been planning on trying to get a ticket for myself, naturally, but a poor girl's seat at the back, and possibly on my own as even the poor girl tickets were too expensive for most of my recession challenged friends.

When my brother does do something, however, it is clear that he does it in style - he planned to buy the most expensive, best seats in the house... and after thinking about it for a few minutes (and securing the promise of a loan from said brother), I remembered countless years of peering round poles, cursing myself for forgetting my binoculars and promising myself that next time, I would get a better seat... and I decided to join him.

Fast forward to last night at the Hammersmith Apollo, with the ticket money a dim and distant memory (after all, what else would I have spent it on? Probably only cola bottles and glitter), it became crashingly apparent that we had made the right choice - and in fact, that our choice had been even better than we had realised. We were in row H. However, for reasons unknown, there were no rows A-D. Seating started at E. We were almost close enough to touch her - and indeed, I did have to mentally straightjacket my arms a couple of times to resist trying to pull her off the stage for a cuddle. She seemed so good natured that I couldn't be certain she'd mind, even. But I'm pretty sure the burly security guards wouldn't have liked it too much.

The only time I've ever been approaching being that close to a genuine musical deity was when I saw Prince at Ronnie Scott's earlier this year (see my blog from February 2014), which obviously was in itself a dear diary moment of epic proportions. Ronnie Scotts, though, had been standing up and kinda shovey, and people's heads were in the way. Plus, Prince could get lost under a milk bottle lid, so you've got to be good looking, cos he's so hard to see, as Macca once said. This was entirely different. Kate, in all her gothic glory, was elevated above us on a huge stage. Her audience was well-behaved, watchful - and, for what it's worth, overwhelmingly white. They stayed still and so you could position your head between the heads of those in front and see perfectly.

She opened with Lily, one of my favourite songs from the Red Shoes, which is one of her best albums - followed by the Hounds of Love, which made me shout and bounce around in my seat until I suspect my seat mates became concerned for my health. It was a little unusual being surrounded by people whose appreciation was shown by gently tapping their knees rather than screaming out the words and throwing their arms wide, as I am used to, but I think I mostly managed to camouflage myself into looking like I belonged.

Watching Kate so close up was endlessly fascinating. She's bigger than she used to be, but damn, she wears it well. She looked like statuesque royalty, composed and serene. The Platonic ideal of a Very Important Person.

Kate Bush is two people. The eerily tortured singer who seems to belong to a world of vampires and velvet... and the completely unpretentious, overwhelming lovely woman who thanked us effusively for every round of applause and couldn't contain her joy at our voracious love.

At some point during King of the Mountain, complete with backing singers (one of whom was her adorable, baby faced, ginger topped son Bertie, of the eponymous song fame, fact fans!) imitating the wind that is whistling through the house, I wondered if she might throw in a costume change or two, or if she was a bit above all that kind of frippery.

What followed on almost immediately from that thought was a sensory overload of frippery of the very best kind, the likes of which I have never seen before and doubt I shall ever see again. Kate and her band played the whole of The Ninth Wave, the difficult second side of The Dreaming, a bizarrely beautiful fever dream of distortion and dancing.

But more than just playing these songs, they were performed in a play in which Kate was stranded in a sea populated by skeletal fish, where her rescuers (aka backing singers) had high vis vests on their chests and long, whip-like rats' tails hanging from their behinds. As she sank beneath the water, her husband (pretend) and son (actual) were haunted by her presence in a rocking house prop worthy of Michel Gondry, with razor sharp, aqua coloured lasers created the illusion of the ocean all around. A helicopter made up of sound effects, moving search lights and flares interrogated the audience, searching for Kate and her crew. The story culminated in Kate's death, as she clung to a buoy in a dark and stormy sea that genuinely gave me the fear - but her body was carried by the skeleton fish within feet of our seats, almost close enough to kiss, so I quickly recovered.

As, thank god, did she! The first half closed with The Morning Fog, and with Kate thanking us again and beaming all over her still stunningly beautiful face.

The second half of the show utilised the second half of Aerial, 'The Sky of Honey,' a 45 minute experimental concept string of songs which features a very bizarre rhyme about paintings not drying. I have to say, I didn't dig this half of the show quite as much. Being a Bad Fan, I didn't really like Aerial that much the first time round (I could never get past that bloody song about the washing machine) and had only listened to the Sky of Honey a couple of times since securing the tickets. It is beautiful music, but I missed The Dreaming, and The Sensual World, and You're the One, and This Woman's Work, and Army Dreamers (all unplayed) really quite badly.

I also found it a little harder to make sense of the accompanying theatre for this half of the show. Was it about her art being her child and breaking away from her? Or was it about Kate turning into a bird? I was a bit confused, but still, it was sumptuous music, and there is something very reassuring about realising that pop stars don't get any less mad the older they get. And let's face it, mad pop stars are always the best. (With the exception of Lady Gaga. How I wish she'd make music that had even half the kick of her frankly thrilling visual image.)

The show ended with Kate playing a grand piano had that seemingly been smashed through by a silver birch tree and then leading us all in the 'yeah-ee-yeah-ee-yos' of Cloud Busting. We were at a show right near the end of the epic 22 night run, so I don't know how she managed to still look so genuinely thrilled that we all knew the words and were eager to scream them back at her, but she pulled it off so convincingly that it bought tears to my eyes. Kate, you are the very definition of a lady, and I shall love you until the day I die. Never get normal. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The unusual world of academic conferences

Academic conferences are a strange beast. In theory (and if it's theory-led, it must be robust, yes yes?), such events are a chance to rub shoulders with your most valued peers, to hear from the greatest minds in your field, to socialise with your academic idols. And true, they are all those things. But there is more, so much more, lingering beneath this perfect surface.

When I first started going to conferences alone, I was downright terrified. It was like the worst first day of school ever... a school where you have to stand up in front of kids six or seven years above you and try to speak aloud what you had previously thought were the most magical meditations that ever you mused in 15 mere minutes whilst those older kids all sharpen their claws and think about ways to rip you limb from limb, intellectually speaking. And then you must sit and eat lunch with those same kids, pretending that nothing happened and we're all friends here.

I spent the first conference I went to alone hiding in the toilets during the breaks for fear that someone Terribly Important might speak to me and that the resultant horror would cause me to lose control of my senses and start blurting out nonsense about which series of RuPaul's Drag Race I think is the best. (Incidentally - definitely the first. No-one will ever top Ongina, and you know it just as well as I do.)

I'm over that fear a little now, and have reached the stage where I mostly enjoy conferences. Certainly, the ones where I'm surrounded by my fellow qualitative, leftie contemporaries are nothing short of glorious. But I just returned from a different beast altogether - a much more mainstream, quantitative conference, populated by Big Wigs with a both capital B and a capital Double You.

Ninety per cent of the qualitative work there was consigned to the humiliation of a poster session (in which those magical musings I mentioned earlier must be boiled down into a sheeny soundbite and Velcroed to the wall, whilst you stand awkwardly alongside looking hopeful that someone will be transfixed by your efforts, the proverbial puppy waiting to be taken home from the pound - excruciating stuff for authors and punters alike), whilst the oral presentations were all given by people who think that if it's not been proven by a Randomised Control Trial, it's nothing more than pixie dust, blowing in the wind. Hence, I knew very few people and was out of my depth all over again.

The oral presentations are, along with the keynote speakers, the ostensible reason one attends these shindigs in the first place. It's definitely not all about getting your institution to pay for three days of unlimited food and freely flowing alcohol, oh no no. And as I said at the start of this blog, the presentations really should be a treat, a chance to hear the latest work from the people who are basically celebrities in your little corner of academia, legends in your own lunchtime.

However... with all the endless buffets and the hot, sticky rooms, I can't be the only person who finds myself constantly battling sleep in these things? My head doing that heavier-than-a-baby-grand thing, my eyelids doing that droopier-than-Pete-Doherty's-willy thing? (Well, re the latter... I imagine. I can't think that horse would help a fella fulfil its namesake in the old trouser department, but I've no personal experience - answers on a postcard if I'm wrong. This is science, after all, I'm open to peer review.) I live in constant fear that one day my body will betray me in the worst way possible during one of these things and I'll let out a snore louder than bombs and forever be known as the girl who fell asleep whilst Dan Zahavi told us what the actual secret of the universe is.

The applause at the end of a session usually jerks me back awake, and then come the questions. Ahh, the 'questions'. Which, as we all know, are not really questions at all - no-one ever really wants or listens to the answer. Instead, this is just the chance to point out, in the most polished and poised language available, that the speaker might know some stuff, but I know a bit more, so here's where you're wrong. Always prefaced with the obligatory, 'thank you so much for that talk, it was fascinating.' And postfaced with 'so blerty ner ner.'*

Lunch is always a trauma, served as it is minus alcohol - the squares. Being the awkward wheat free meat free person I am, I always face an epic struggle to find any food I can actually eat at conferences, meaning that by the time I have wrangled with a outraged kitchen staff member who clearly never got my three-times-emailed request and have been handed my dry as a bone, raw onion filled, gluten free sandwich (some of this blog is exaggerating for effect - this last is Actual Fact), I have to face a canteen full of people who have seemingly known each other since the maternity ward and are roaring with laughter over jokes I could never understand and so face the choice of trying to find a seat alone, taking my horrible lunch to the ladies and trying to moisten it up a bit with my tears, or being brave, sitting down and joining in the joke. I rarely opt for that last option.

Ah, but the conference dinner... that makes it all worthwhile. The wine comes out, and so does the gossip. The intellect elite love a good bitching session as much as the rest of us mere mortals do. The music gets turned up, and the dad dancing begins. Your single serving friend (thanks for that one, Chuck Palahniuk) suddenly becomes family. And you book your space for next year before the night is out.

*Well, it might as well be. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

I'm trying to say... I made you this mixtape.

Is there a more intricate language in this land than the secret speech inherent within the track listing of that first mixtape? If there is, I don't know what it could be. So many possible pitfalls line the way. How can you make clear your interest without coming across as a sap? How does one successfully traverse the tightrope between romantic poetry and sappy, scary adoration? Of course, the mere fact of making a mixtape in the first place makes it completely obvious that sappiness is the order of the day, but you've usually been made too stupid with the excess of oxytocin to spot that rather obvious flaw amongst the delicate plotting.

Plus, of course, when one is a DJ (as one is, don't you know, darling), there is the additional pressure (entirely self imposed, I'm sure, it's hugely unlikely that anyone else gives a fig) that as well as carrying that subtle-as-a-skunk message of I QUITE FANCY YOU, YOU KNOW, the mix tape must also be artfully compiled and contain the right ratio of new, cool, edgy stuff to balance out the obligatory Lady in Reds and Careless Whispers that suddenly seem to mean so much more than ever they did before. No, it's not like any other love. This is one is different, because it's us.

(Please don't worry, I haven't entirely lost my mind. Lady in Red is not on this mixtape.)

(I have put on a totally awesome drum n bass remix of Careless Whisper, though.)

Throw in the additional complication that the current apple of your eye is ALSO a DJ (and a much more accomplished DJ than you are, goddamn it), and the whole thing becomes something you have to write an entire blog about to get right, apparently.

I like to think my mixtape skills have improved in subtlety somewhat since I was a sallow, sullen teenager. I still wake cringing in the night when I remember the cassette I made for a boy I relentlessly pursued, despite his repeated efforts at giving me the swerve, for which the track listing was entirely selected and ordered so that the song titles created an acronym expressing my devotion. I don't think I quite went so far as to do those first letters in big lipstick red strokes while the rest of each title was type written, but it probably wasn't far off. I wonder if he ever noticed? I do hope not.

Then there are the questions of etiquette. Can you put a song on a new mixtape that you have used before? That's probably a bit lazy, isn't it, like having the same nickname for every beau? So definitely not, no. Laziness might be ok for others, but it will never do for me! But what if it's a really, really good song and no other song will work in that particular spot? Do you take out THREE songs so that the preceding and following songs aren't just oh so obviously crying out for the one you had to remove? Or do you just cheat and repeat? Doesn't that mean the whole relationship is based on a lie, right from the outset??? This is the sort of thing that could end up divorce papers, you know!

Which aspects of yourself do you reveal, and which do you hide? I like to think that I'm amongst the bolder in this world in terms of not caring if other people are going to judge me for liking music they might consider inferior (YES I love Sugababes, YES I have every album Madonna has ever made, YES I think Will Smith spits iller lyrics than Tyler the Creator... WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT???), but this first mixtape is a much more vulnerable situation than a slightly tanked up DJ gig to a mass of people who probably don't know what's good for them anyway. What if I take a risk with that Girls Aloud album track and love disappears from my fingertips as a result? I've gone off people for less in the past; I know how it works.

An entire evening of crafting, and I think I'm there. I'm listening to the result right now, and certainly I think I'm terribly clever, even if no-one else does. One thing is for certain. This is very serious business. I know you understand, blog fans.

I'll let you know how it goes down.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

He Could Probably Take The Place Of My Man

Unless you live under a rock or are one of these tedious types who eschew television, you will have realised that Prince is in town. This is big news for me. I love Prince with a passion that knows no bounds. Well, maybe it knows some bounds - the period of 1994-2004 in his back catalogue scares me a bit and I suspect might be a touch self-indulgent, although I'm ashamed to say I've never tried to find out - but the whacked out, unpredictable, genuine pop-star bonkers-ness of the man more than makes up for any failings in terms of self editing. Besides, look at the length of some of these blog entries... I can hardly get on my high horse about limiting yourself artistically, can I?

When I heard that Prince would be playing a series of gigs in small venues all across London, I swore to myself that I would get to as many of them as I could manage. At that point, I was imagining a frantic four or five minutes with 16 tabs for Ticketmaster and Stargreen open on my computer, stabbing in the details of my long-suffering credit card with my eyes closed and worrying about what I had to cancel to make way for His Royal Purpleness later.

When it became clear a week or so ago that it was going to be a case of turning up and queueing for tickets rather than a crazed episode of advanced ticket booking, I was struck by the typically oddball nature of it all, but also, being old and tired and set in my ways, a bit put out. I'm often busy with, you know, yoga. Or watching re-runs of Modern Family. Or needing to go to bed by 9.30 because it was a hard day. I can't just drop everything and run out in the rain on the off-chance I might get to see Prince, can I? In retrospect, I'm deeply ashamed of this attitude. It's hardly I Would Die 4 U, is it now?

Due to work and other plans and not-hearing-about-gigs-till-too-late, I missed both Electric Ballroom shows, the Shepherd's Bush and King's Centre ones, and then all three (well, two and a half) Koko gigs. One part of me was starting to think that I would just have to accept that the Hit and Run tour was not going to happen for me. But my heart was also breaking slightly at this thought.

When I got into university on Monday morning, I was not planning on going to Ronnie Scott's. I had a lot of important PhD work to do, I couldn't be sure I would get in - it was just all round a bad idea. I sat at my desk and looked at an interview transcript and tried to settle down to work.

And tried a bit harder.

And then a bit less hard.

I couldn't stop looking at Twitter, which showed pictures of the squiggly one's mic stand being unloaded into Ronnie Scott's... a venue which is, as it happens, only 10 minutes' walk from my office. I tried and tried to turn my mind away from Prince and think about my work but, as it turns out, pop music DOES matter more to me than academia and my soul would not be broken. After all, I thought to myself, what am I going to remember in five years time - sitting at my desk writing linguistic, descriptive and conceptual notes about a participant's experience of haemodialysis, like I do every day? Or seeing Prince in a 250 capacity venue?

For an allegedly smart girl, it does take me a while to figure things out properly at times.

As soon as I'd made the decision, I started panicking that I'd left it too late. I printed out some work, fondly imagining I'd do it in the queue (ha! Some chance!), said my goodbyes to my university mates, none of whom asked me, 'take me with u,' very disappointing... and pretty much sprinted (well, walked briskly, some things will never change) round to Firth Street, stopping only at Pret to stock up on supplies.

Arriving at about 11.15 with visions of mobs of thousands swarming around Ronnie Scott's, I was in fact pleasantly surprised by how short the queue was. I joined the back of it in time to hear someone say the words 'worth getting fired for,' to which I said 'I agree!' and immediately, I had friends. These friends told me to go up to the venue door and get a number written on my hand. It was official - I was number 104 - this surely meant I would get to see Prince in just a few short hours.

As with so many things in life, the queue was really not the cold, boring monster I was scared it would be. It really wasn't especially cold for a long, long time. And there was definitely no time for working, as I was far too busy swapping stories - both Prince and life related - with the other fans around me. Although I should note that I was put to shame by one woman who was doing her sustainable fashion Masters homework while sitting on the curb. I was far too busy doing runs to the off licence for red wine and having crisps pressed on me by my new friends to give psychology a second thought.

The rumours were coming thick and fast as everyone looked on their phones and swapped gossip. We decided he would probably take pity on us and do an afternoon show, a hope that was sadly only in our heads. The show would start at 7. It would start at midnight. That was just a rumour to try to scare people away. If you got a stamp on your hand that said Prince and 3rd Eye Girl, you were definitely getting in. Actually, those stamps were fake and nothing was a guarantee. It was going to be £70. It would be £10. It was actually £35. Who knew what was real? Certainly not us! Controversy was all around!

The whole atmosphere was a cross between a carnival and the best hooky you ever played. Newsnight filmed us singing a few lines of Purple Rain. We ran out of booze and went to buy more. The nearby Cafe Nero had never had such a long toilet queue in all of its existence before. We were given free popcorn, and then free pizza. And underneath it all ran the insistent, excited thrum that we were going to see Prince and we were going to see him soon. And close, close up. Life can be so nice.

At some point - I'm not sure what the time was, but I think it was around dusk - we were told that we couldn't keep using the camping chairs my more organised new friends had bought with them as they were blocking the pavement. So we grudgingly stood up, and immediately the queue doubled in width, meaning the pavement was blocked anyway.

Shortly after this, it started raining and the hooch ran out for a second time. These portents were clearly a sign o the times ahead.

Looking back, it's hard to work out when the queue stopped being a hilarious, spacious conga line of Paisley Park anticipation and instead became a sardine can of rainy frayed tempers and nerves, but by 10pm, it had definitely crossed over to the dark side. I tried to interest my new friends in playing I Spy and 20 Questions to pass the time, but turns out not everyone is quite as geeky as me when it comes to things like that. My friends and I were still doing ok, taking photos and trying to cheer each other along, but cross words were being exchanged amongst other queue mates over pushing in slights - some real, some imaginary - and we all kept moving forwards into each other even though the doors still weren't open.

It was probably around 11.30 that I realised I was ridiculously thirsty and starting to feel quite light headed and sick. Turns out a lot of wine, a lot of rain, a slice of pizza and a handful of popcorn do not a substantial dinner make. I did not imagine that throwing up in these close knit circumstances would win me any additional new friends, so I fought my way to the outer edges of the queue and tried to put my head between my knees without actually sitting down, since the pavement was sodden, which is about as hard as it sounds. Truly, this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Fortunately, a friendly queue man came to my rescue with some Ribena, which seemed to do the job, so I rallied myself and got back in the queue. By this point, though, my back was hurting, everything was wet, I was bone tired and thinking with dread about the night bus home... and for a moment, I came very, very close to giving up and going home.

But then, just as I was thinking this, 13 long hours after I had arrived, the door opened! Stephen Fry came right past us all, somehow not being blinded by the epilepsy inducing shower of flashes going off in his face, which cheered me greatly as I adore our kid Steve so... and with an impressive lack of fuss or fighting, we were in.

Myself and two of my queue buddies managed to get right to the front of the right hand side of the stage... which was uncannily lucky as this turned out to be directly in front of where the wee man spent 90% of the gig, playing his piano with his beautiful artistic fingers, which I watched delicately tease out Purple Rain on the old ivories. Not through a screen, not through binoculars... but through leaning forward slightly and angling my head right. I was almost close enough to give him my extra time and my kiss.

Was the gig worth the 13 hours out in the cold and the rain? Well, readers, I have to be totally honest and say that the first 10 or 15 minutes did disappoint me a bit. Prince has such a vast discography that one always runs the risk of being underwhelmed by rarities that you don't know. I didn't know the first few instrumental tunes, and while they were no doubt beautifully executed they were, as befits Ronnie Scott's I suppose, undeniably jazzy, and not in the way your mum means when she talks about her new jumper. I'm all for accomplished musicianship (well, kinda), but I'm a bigger fan of pop music, and I hadn't really queued for all that time to listen to instrumentals.

However, things quickly turned around when the sexy MF (and god, close up, he really is just as sexy as you had always hoped but didn't dare to dream) first played a beautifully slowed down version of I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man before offering to take us back to the 80s and playing a medley of Take Me With U (a contender for my favourite Prince tune ever) and Raspberry Beret. The band were hot and cool all at once... Prince himself seemed quite shy, letting them take centre stage and only really talking to us to tell us to be safe on the way home.

It was surreal, being that close to not only such a hero of mine but also such a hugely photographed icon. He really does look like Prince. That might sound daft, but I think it's easy to imagine that these impossibly big stars aren't really real, or that if you got close enough it would turn out it was all some tricksy combination of Photoshop, smoke and mirrors, and that actually, these giants of pop life look a bit more like your slightly scuzzy next door neighbour than like the press has always shown you. But no - he really does look like Prince. Occasionally it felt like the pathway of his eyes crossed the pathway of mine, and I would feel faint all over the again. The idea that Prince, even for a millisecond, could be aware of my existence was something I don't think I could ever quite wrap my head round.

He played two encores and sang both The Beautiful Ones and How Come You Don't Call Me Any More, two more of my favourites, covered Who is He and What is He to You and the Whole of the Moon, got us all singing along to Purple Rain, played the bass, the guitar and the keyboards all with the same dazzling virtuosity and sang like nothing I can find any words to describe. He finished around 90 minutes after he went on. Approximately an eighth of the time I had been waiting for him.

Was it worth it?

Well, I'm already thinking about next time. You can draw your own conclusion from that.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The emotional complexities of transplantation

This is a fairly different blog from me. In my day job as psychological qualitative researcher extraordinaire, I am taking part in an event at the Science Museum on Wednesday night talking about why my research is the Next Big Thing in Psychology. Exciting, and also mildly terrifying. Here's a blog I wrote about that research for my university. 

I am a qualitative, psychological researcher exploring the experiences of people living with kidney disease. End stage renal disease (ESRD) is a complex beast that may require its sufferers to undergo gruelling dialysis sessions three times a week, to restrict their diets and how much they drink, to bide time on a waiting list hoping for a kidney from a deceased donor, or to negotiate the emotional complexities of receiving a kidney from a living donor. Even when – if – a transplant has taken place, the renal patient has to take a cocktail of drugs (which come with a serving platter of side effects) every day for the rest of their lives. That’s a lot of different challenges for a person to get their head around.
My research involves speaking to people in-depth about their experiences, and then trying to illuminate those experiences in a resonant manner so that other people can walk a mile in their shoes – or perhaps more appropriately cleanse a pint of blood in their dialysis machines. My hope is that my work will better our understanding of the lives of renal patients; and better understanding makes for a better world, on so many levels.

Accepting a kidney from a living donor

Two of my studies have looked at the experience of receiving a kidney from a living donor. Common sense, that oh-so-reliable source, may predict that the decision to give a kidney away is a weighty and difficult one, a decision that may keep the potential donor up all night as they fret about whether they will ever play the piano again.
I’m sure this is the case for some donors, but I know from both research and personal experience that it’s not the case for most. When I made the decision to give a kidney to my dear friend, I did so in the blink of an eye. Why would I not want my friend to be healthy and happy, especially if it did me no harm? Rather less altruistically, why would I not want the accolades of friends and family for being a so-called hero? My somewhat shop-worn self esteem regularly needs a lift, and I now have an instant booster that I can reliably get out of the memory cabinet and polish up for inspection any time I feel self-loathing start to creep in.
That same common sense might suggest that anyone who needed a kidney would jump at the chance to take any they are offered, and would be undyingly grateful for this chance at a fresh start.
But think about that for a moment. Would you want to be undying grateful? To anyone? Even if it does mean a chance at health? The shackles of indebtedness are real and heavy, and a kidney patient needs to be sure that any potential donor will not be pulling out the ‘but I saved your LIFE eyes’ during any disagreement, or expecting that they will now be BFFs until the end of time.
Add to this the fact that the recipient is asking the donor to undergo painful elective surgery (something the foolhardy donor may well not care about, but you still don’t want to ask for it, do you?) and we can start to see that receiving a kidney is much more emotionally complex process than donating one.

My findings

This dilemma is the driving motivation for my research, and my findings from both studies on this topic bear out the prediction that recipient/donor relationships are complicated stuff. In one study, one participant had received a kidney from a second cousin, a woman who lived on the other side of the world and who was no longer that close to her recipient. Another woman had received a kidney from her best friend, a friend so close they were almost like sisters. Counter-intuitively, the latter woman found post-op adjustment harder as she felt she could never speak her mind in an argument again.
A participant in another study was given a kidney by her daughter. She felt wracked with conflict and distress over this, in her words, ‘wrong direction’ transplant. Her family wanted her to be well and so were invested in the transplant going ahead. She presented a position of being happy with this, yet seemed wracked with uncertainties beneath the surface.
These were the sorts of situations that came up for my participants; emotionally complex ones which have gone largely unnoticed by the current literature. I hope that by illuminating the fact that renal patients must deal with situations like these, I can help them be more fully supported through those decisions.