In which I consider a career in hip hop. For realz.

Last time we met I mentioned that I go to the gym. This is true. I am one of these annoying people who is actually addicted to exercise, specifically I just love pumping iron. True fact. I love answering questions from the audience at writers’ festivals, but what I’m really waiting for is someone to challenge me to an arm wrestle.

The key to a good weights session (stay with me, the light’s coming, I swear.) Is music. As I previously wrote, I attend a gym largely patronised by blokes, many of them (so-called) professional athletes. This can be a touch intimidating. The weights room is completely male dominated. A lass can feel like she’s trespassing on some primitive male ritual. I stick out amongst all the bronzed, oiled (eww) biceps. I am a gangly, fluro-white girl in glasses. But like I said, I like doing weights and Fernwood is about twice as expensive as a mixed gym so I have developed an effective method for keeping my cool (I use this term only as strongly as can be applied to someone who works out in an old maternity bra and tattered ‘Overland literary journal’ t-shirt.) What’s my secret? Hip hop, peeps. Rap. That cray cray ghetto thayng. Mos def.

Yes, in order to feel on par with the super-tough titanium lifters (Do they lift titanium? Is it even heavy? Let’s leave that little illustration alone.) I recruit the help of the Beastie Boys, sometimes De la Soul, and more often than not, a heap of Gwen Stefani. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

I don’t feel intimidated if I have Mike D rapping in my ear. It makes me feel like I have a little posse following me around telling these annoying 20 year old posers to get off my leg press, man. Never mind that the remaining beasties are now in their late forties.

The problem is, I have run out of music. I have listened to Hollaback Girl 68 times in the last month and I now know every word of every Beastie Boys song that’s got a fast enough beat to elevate the heart rate. Massive Attack? I know every thought that ever entered Tricky’s mind. Same for Jurassic Five. I am in that weird place where I am out of the loop and don’t know what to listen to. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that I refuse to listen to anything misogynistic. That rules out about 70% of hip hop. Also, I have kids, so there can’t be too many expletives. Or if there are, they have to be easily masked as something else. For example, you can sing along to Hollaback Girl if you pretend Gwen is really passionate about her ‘ships’: ‘OooOoo that’s my ship, that’s my ship.’

So, I hear you say, why not try something else, there’s a lot of hip hop out there. Modern stuff: Jay Z? Kanye? That Snoopy Dog fellow?

Yeah. But the problem is, it all sounds very plastic, slick, sharp. I was a teen in the 90s. I cut my teeth on a grungy, fuzzy, rough-around-the-edges sound that comes from people making music it their parents’ garage. Without Pro Tools. I made the jump from guitar driven grunge to hip hop via the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, which owes more to Nirvana than it does N.W.A. That song was my bridge. I was able to ease myself in. I don’t want no computer generated, auto-tuned, slick sound. Also it seems that most people in the hip hop business today have lost their sense of humour. It’s all very earnest, either about popping caps or using hoes. It all sounds rather fake to me. The only caps I pop are Panadol and I use a hoe in the garden from time to time, but generally I just can’t relate.

I’m going to sound old now, but I remember De La Soul rapping about poor hygiene and the beasties mentioning their grandmas. Gwen Stefani had her tongue firmly in cheek on a permanent basis, as did Charlie Tuna. I miss those days. Now everyone seems super keen to prove how tough and mean they are and how much cash they’ve got.

What about Aussie hip hop? You may ask. The Pez Dispenser chappie? 360? Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, and I realise this is some cultural cringe thing I need to overcome, but I can’t stand rap with an Australian accent. I have an Irish friend who says I need to get over this. Easy for him to say, he’s Irish.

Recently I came across Iggy Azalea. She’s Australian, but you wouldn’t know it from her accent. She raps like Kelis or Nicki Minaj. She is clearly inhabiting an imaginary persona, but I don’t see the problem, musicians have been doing that for years. No one blames David Bowie for being fake because he never lived on a space station. Aside from the Minaj-esque accent, ‘Fancy’ sounds like it could be Gwen Stefani, so that’s a win. It’s also got a sense of humour about it. ‘I’m so fancy’ is a funny line, if for no other reason than it uses the word ‘fancy’. Iggy claims to be in the ‘murdder business’, but we know she’s making it up because she makes no secret of the fact she’s from Mullumbimby.

In fact, I like that song so much I bought the album. Trouble is, the rest of the tracks maintain the whole, ‘I was poor, now I’m a rich and l might shoot you’ narrative, funny for one song but tiresome over a twelve track album. Yes, yes, Iggy, you started out on your own with no friends and now you’re a success everyone wants to come around and drink your champagne. That aspect may be true, but it’s not entertaining. There’s nothing lyrically clever about it. While we’re talking white rappers, I have a lot of respect for Eminem. He’s a clever guy. But I can’t buy an album which glorifies beating up a woman and stuffing her in your car boot. No matter how linguistically sophisticated it is.

(It made me consider making my own hip hop. I would rap about books, a really nice skirt that I bought from Cue a few weeks ago and how much I love Spike Jonze movies. Maybe also horses and how expensive they are to maintain. But I’ve kind of committed to the whole writing thing for the moment and besides, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make a very convincing rapper.)

rapperIt seems that the only stuff around that doesn’t feature expletives does feature a fellow called Pit Bull, who is so manufactured he makes me want to shout expletives, which kind of defeats the purpose of listening to clean stuff in the first place. I have a big problem with music that’s marketed as family friendly and clean, but features a guy in a suit surrounded by gyrating semi-naked women. Call me picky.

On the upside, The Roots have released a new album, ‘And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ which harks back to Faithless and other trip hoppy stuff like DJ Shadow, it even has a flavour of Portishead to it. It is largely a response to the shallow, braggy, materialistic hip hop which is so prevalent. If you want to read more about the comment it makes on hip hop and black America today, The Roots’ drummer, Questlove (he of the fantastic hair) wrote this piece for Vulture. It’s pretty freaking great. As for me I know it’s risky to cast any judgment over contemporary hip hop, both Lorde and Lily Allen have been accused of racism because of comments their music makes about mainstream hip hop culture. But that issue is another blog altogether.

 

Whistle-Blower Edition: The Truth behind the Dragons and NRL

There’s been a fair amount of whistle-blowing in sport lately, in all senses of the word. (See what I did there?) What with drugs of all varieties, bribery, corruption, players passing out and ploughing into parked cars, not to mention the small issue of Qatar hosting a world cup when their average temp for July is 75 degrees C*. (Nothing sus going on there. AT ALL.)

What I’m about to tell you shrinks all of these into insignificance. Let’s not kid ourselves, I am not a sportsologist of any kind. (That’s the right term, yeah?) But I feel the need to share a piece of inside information with NRL fans, specifically fans of the St George Illawarra Dragons. There are a lot of sad Dragons fans out there at the moment. I know because I live with one and I also live in the Illawarra, so I see a lot of fans in Dragons jerseys openly sobbing while they go about their day-to-day activities. Another tell-tale sign is the scoreboard. This afternoon the Dragons got beaten 36 nil. I’m pretty sure even I could manage a better score than that. (This is not meant to be derogatory to the Dragons because I am a woman**, but rather because my #1 objective on the sporting field is to keep as much distance as possible between myself and a ball.) In fact, considering the fact that last week they were beaten 38 to 6, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NRL introduced participation certificates specifically for the Dragons, or perhaps started a new arm of competition where no points are recorded and everyone’s a winner by virtue of the fact they had a go. Perhaps this is all a little harsh and mean-spirited, like I said I’m no expert. Perhaps this is part of a long-term strategy in which the Dragons bore their opponents into a semi comatose state, at which point they – the Dragons – then score some points. Any points really would be an improvement.images-1

Problem is they are experts. They are paid for this stuff.

So here’s the inside scoop, folks. I have observed the Dragons training and even I, with little to no knowledge of Rugby League, can identify exactly where they are going wrong.

My insights come from spending time at the gym, the same gym as the Dragons frequent. (This was not by design on my part, but I doubt many young ladies who patronise the said gym could say the same.) My time observing the Dragons started out fairly positively, one would oft sight them all lined up on the exercise bikes, peddling away whilst a fellow with a clipboard helped them out by setting the resistance and timer and what not. Sometimes they would have a go in the pool, each with their team’s name proudly displayed across their rear; for safety purposes I presume,  if should one be found wandering, confused and lost by the tennis courts, they could be identified and returned to the fellows with the clipboards and whistles. They put on the show one would expect from professional sportsmen, had all the right gear etc.

But then one day I witnessed something distressing. Was it Josh Dugan getting stuck in the turnstile? No, although I did witness this and it’s fair to say it was more amusing than distressing. No, dear reader, one day I was heading across to the gym, passing some shrubbery when, what should I spy there amongst the bushes? Two Dragons, in full regalia, puffing away on sneaky durries like a couple of year nines behind the Science block at recess. I thought I was seeing things. For months I told myself that the gents responsible for a large portion of the Illawarra’s collective mental health would never spend money paid to them to PLAY SPORT on cigarettes and then smoke said cigarettes during training. But then just last week I spotted a Dragon there amongst the trees by the oval, having a little rest, a little breather. Perhaps finding inspiration in nature or contemplating the more meditative aspects of maneuvering a ball around the field for cash. Unfortunately, as I neared, the plumes of smoke around his head area signalled that while he was taking a breather, it wasn’t air he was focused on breathing.

That information is shocking I know. Take a moment to process that mental image while I feed you another truth nugget: THE DRAGONS ARE AFRAID OF RAIN. Yes, just days after the second smoking sighting, as I was making my way from the gym to the car park, I was caught in a bit of a downpour – as is quite common in this temperate region (FIFA, take note.) Also caught in the downpour, mid-training session, were the poor Dragons. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen NRL players in the rain before, carrying on with the game in the mud like gallant soldiers at the Somme. Not these ones. No, these ones had fled the field and were cowering, bone dry, under a small awning. They weren’t even puffing in any sense of the word. It was as if they had been taking only a brief turn around the grounds in the manner of Elizabeth Bennet or similar. Granted, Benji wasn’t there. And we all know he isn’t afraid of anything. But even the most talented player is rendered useless if all his teammates have fled the field for fear of messing up their hair.

So all I can say, Dragons fans, is if you thought these last two weeks were bad, heaven help you if it should rain.

*Rough estimate

**Some women are kick-arse at League, I know one, she’s a size 8 but could put most men to shame with her tackling skills.

Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

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If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…

Oh the places you’ll go: on clothes and shoes and eating my words

A few weeks ago I made the declaration that ‘You can’t be a feminist and buy fashion magazines’. This is the bit where I backpedal.

My grandmother was a dressmaker. To be more specific she made couture gowns for high society in the 60s and 70s. She also made a lot of wedding gowns and taught pattern making at East Sydney Technical College. I have a memory of standing next to her in a department store, probably David Jones, while she made sketches of designer gowns so she could copy them later.Image

I inherited her love of a well cut frock and was a little obsessed with clothes as a child. This was back before you could buy voluminous tulle skirts in any kids clothing store, she made made them for me herself. I would do drawings of dresses that I dreamed up and she would make them for me. My strongest memory is of standing on her coffee table while she took pins from between her lips and pinned the hem of the calico toile she had made for my First Holy Communion dress. She later made the final dress from taffeta and lace that we chose together from a fabric store in Cabramatta. I wanted a strapless sweetheart neckline with a fitted bodice and full, billowing princess skirt. I got my wish, with the compromise of a long-sleeve lace overlay which was deemed more suitable for ones first communion with the Eucharist.

Later, when I was fifteen, I bought my first fashion magazine: a September issue of Harpers Bazaar with Christy Turlington on the cover. I sat at the dining room with Grandma and we poured over the pages together while she used the nebuliser which was keeping her alive. (She called fashion magazines Wish Books.) We discussed the dress that she would make for my year ten formal, folding the corners of pages for later reference, we would take this hemline, that neckline, this waist. She passed away soon after and I went to the formal in a store-bought dress: fitted bodice, flared skirt, black lace overlay.

I suppose what I am saying is what so, so many women have said before: some items of clothing are much more than items of clothing. I was taught to look at clothes the way an architect looks at a buildings. Some clothes are invested with meaning and carry the ethereal power of possibility. Yesterday I went to the sales with my dear, London-dwelling bestie. We tried on designer labels and I got that giddy light-headedness that one gets when one stands before an iconic painting or meets a super-duper movie star. For a few moments, in the changing room, I wore McQueen. It has never happened before and probably won’t happen again. My bestie bought McQueen and DKNY at ludicrously low prices. I bought a pair of outrageous canary yellow heels by Sass and Bide. They’re not really the sort of thing that will fit into my day to day existence. I won’t wear them to do the groceries. But that is clearly not the point. I may not spend much time strolling by the Eiffel Tower in incredible shoes, but I now have some ready to go should the occasion arise.

Lest to say, trying on clothes like that is not something I do often. Magazines remain my only regular portal into the Fashion Dreamland which I will only ever fleetingly inhabit, even then with a security tag attached. So for now I shall dismount from my high horse (his name is Fred, he’s a bolter). I shall try and remain self aware and on guard to the risks associated with repeated viewing of images of very thin people. And in a little while I will probably backpedal again.

You can’t be a feminist and buy fashion magazines.

This week a study reported that seventy-five percent of men, when they see a woman, don’t look at her face, they look at her body.* I for one an neither surprised nor enraged. I fact, I think that sounds quite healthy and imperative to the human race’s survival. I do like to imagine, say, Prince Charles trying to keep his eyes above the shoulders of every of the two hundred women he might greet at an average afternoon tea.

Meanwhile this video has been floating around. And it’s made me wonder about the opposite. Not women looking at men (everyone knows we are a bunch of salacious perverts and there is no hope for us) but rather women looking at women. Heterosexual women looking at women. That is a study that would be worthwhile.

I went to the beach this afternoon. I could tell you about ten different women I saw and what their bodies were like in detail.

I don’t think that’s healthy.

Ask any parent of young girls and they will tell you that girls start worrying about and evaluating their bodies as young as five. FIVE. I don’t need to tell you about the problems with the representation of women in the media. But just for good measure I challenge you to name more than three women regularly seen on television who aren’t the ‘conventional’ image of attractiveness. (i.e. a size eight) Now try men, yes, think of all the men you see on television who aren’t totally bangin’. List them. It should take about half an hour.

(Later, go and read Lisa Wilkinson’s Andrew Olle lecture on women in the media. She was the second woman in fifteen years to be offered the gig! Girl Power!)

I can’t help but wonder how this kind of visual onslaught affects the very physiology of the female brain. But chances are you could do a study and find out it damages us beyond repair and nothing would change.

So what can be done?

I recently went on a three-week beach holiday. My great weakness on holiday is Vogue magazine. Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, InStyle, Vanity Fair, Elle, I freakin’ love them because I love clothes. There are people who say they can see the magisty of God in a sunset. I saw God in Prada’s Spring/Summer 13 collection. I’m not joking. Some people think that clothes are all about vanity and trying to look good. To me, appreciating a well cut garment is no different to appreciating great architecture. My favourite labels are Prada, Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Dries Van Noten and Miu Miu, in case you are interested. Do I own any garments by these said designers? Are you kidding? I’m a WRITER. (i.e. poor by western standards.) The closest I am likely to come to a Prada dress is gazing at a picture in a magazine. (Unless The Sky So Heavy sells like, 500,000 copies. Hop to it people!)

I only read fashion magazines on holiday because I’m a bit like a social smoker: I know they are going to do bad things to me, but if I don’t get my occasional fix I’m going to lose the will to live. And surprise, surprise within two days of gazing at these freakish women who just look amazing in McQueen, I decided I would give up dairy. Who cares about osteoporosis? I want to be skinny. When I realised there was dairy in chocolate I decided instead I would fast two days a week because I’ve heard that’s, like, really good at, like, flushing your body of toxins. (AND YOU CAN LOSE 10 KILOS.)

Never mind the fact that eating tissues is a known strategy used by models to manage hunger and maintain weight. Yep, when you’re next sitting down to a chicken sandwich (on wholemeal!) spare a thought for the fifteen year-olds who have replaced food with disposable snot-management products. And yet we snigger at the Victorian convention of strapping women into corsets. Those poor women! Someone pass me a tissue.

Never mind the fact that my body is perfectly healthy the way it is. Never mind the fact that I can swim two kilometres of freestyle. After two days of Vogue, I don’t care if I don’t have the energy to walk, I want to be thin! Yeah!

Keep in mind, I am a fairly intelligent person. I have a sound sense of self-worth. I have a dreamy husband who loves me the way I am and tells me so regularly. But, I know that the moment I pick up Vogue is going to be the moment I start to obsess about the size of my thighs. You want to talk about achievement? I would feel a greater sense of achievement if I could fit in to a size ten pair of jeans than I do about the fact I HAD A BLOODY NOVEL PUBLISHED.

Magazines are a fraction of a problem that infests every form of media. It stretches from the kinds of women who read the news to the kind that appear in music videos. If two days of Vogue reading can have such an effect on me, imagine the effect the kind of images our media is saturated with has on the mind of a thirteen year-old. She doesn’t stand a freakin’ chance. And if I starve myself and teach my sons that a woman’s worth is equal to her hip width, I am just as bad as the fashion editor who puts a forty-five kilo model on the cover. And she would have been airbrushed with Photoshop to get rid of that lump in her tummy area, WHICH SHE USES TO STORE THE TISSUES SHE EATS FOR SUSTENANCE.

If Marilyn Monroe were around today she would not get a single published anywhere except Who magazine, where they would have an arrow pointing to her stomach, asking ‘Baby bump?!’

Seriously what the FUCK, people?

So what’s it going to take, I wonder? This blog is just another voice in the chorus. It’s nothing you haven’t read before. So what can we DO?

As far as magazines go, bans on catwalk models under fifteen aren’t going to make a difference. Committees of fashion editors sitting around talking about the seriousness of the issue aren’t going to make a difference.

The power lays squarely with the consumer. Imagine what would happen in the fashion industry alone, if every woman in the country said enough is enough and stopped buying not only fashion magazines containing doctored images, but tabloid magazines that publish pics of post-baby bodies and highlight patches of cellulite with arrows.

Because I don’t think it’s an ethical issue any different to buying fair trade coffee or chocolate, or refusing to buy garments made in sweatshops.

This issue is no different to any other major feminist battle throughout history.

You can’t be feminist and buy magazines which fuel an industry that serves to make women feel inadequate, that peddles a body ideal constructed from digitally enhanced images that are no way realistic or obtainable. There, I’ve said it. I understand the love of Vogue and the like. I REALLY, REALLY do. But can you imagine if architects decided that buildings looked better with impossibly narrow doorways, so that the only way an average person could enter would be to have bits of their body surgically removed?

Something has got to give.

*Your going to ask where those results were published, aren’t you? I don’t know, I saw it on The Project. So lets just say the results are available for viewing on The Internet.

Modern Fail?

Like most of the Western world, I’m a fan of Modern Family. I’m also a fan of Instagram. What happens when these two collide? Crazy hijinks? Insightful glimpses into behind-the-scenes larks? New season clues? Well, sometimes. But today it was a selfie of one of the teen stars in her bikini. Yep, Ariel Winter – who plays studious, bespectacled Alex, who is fifteen years old and has 120,000 Instagram followers – posted a picture of herself in a skimpy yellow bikini for all to see on the photo-sharing site. Now, as I write this about three hours afterward, it has been removed, along with all the comments that alternated between ‘You’re sooo hot’ and ‘You’re a whore’.

I was going to comment on the photo, I was going to write that by posting such an image she was perpetuating the idea that women are passive creatures to be objectified, and providing a pretty lousy role model for her fans, to boot. I didn’t because a) I didn’t want to get into an instawar with random teenagers telling me I was repressed, b) the girl is fifteen, she doesn’t need some 30-something mum in Wollongong dissing her, and c) I was caught in that murky land between a female’s right to wear whatever she likes and the idea that by doing so we can inadvertently add fuel to the fire that is our hyper-sexualised society.

Personally, for what it’s worth, I believe that whether we like it or not, we send messages with what we wear. Some of the messages might be unintentional and maybe it’s asking too much of a teenager to analyse every possible way a picture she posts could be interpreted and evaluate these possibilities in light of feminist theory. And I’m not saying the girl should cover every inch of her skin, either. But where’s the line? Where’s the middle ground? Where’s the thing that separates a fifteen year-old’s unrelenting desire to show off and impress anyone who’s watching from the fact that everyone is watching, including the weirdo guy with a thing for teen and preteen girls? And what about the fact that there are fifteen year-olds in bikinis on the beach and in every December issue of Dolly?

And what about the fifteen year-old who looks in the mirror and compares her body with the girl from Modern Family?

She’s the one I’m most worried about.

But after all of that, it’s never a debate about what a guy can or can’t, should or shouldn’t wear, is it?