The Null Device

2017/11/15

LGBT+ Australians and their allies can breathe a cautious sigh of relief as one prolonged chapter of the national culture-war pantomime comes to a close, with 61.6% of Australians voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Sorry, did I say voting? It wasn't a referendum, or even a plebiscite, but a non-binding postal survey, whose sole purpose was for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister to pander the alpha-males of the hard right, putting the human rights of part of the population to a survey and declaring a legal gay-bashing season, giving bigots carte blanche to gather their best arguments on why those people are disgusting and shouldn't be allowed, and shove them into every letterbox in the nation. LGBT mental-health help lines have, as expected, been busy.

Anyway, it turns out that most Australians are happy to let gay people marry. Which is to say, LGBT+ Australians can be somewhat reassured by knowing that, out of any five Australians they might see, statistically, more than three are happy for them to exist; which, one supposes, is progress. So now, a marriage equality bill will soon be debated in parliament. We can probably expect to see the LNP hard right, abetted by the Australian media's right-wing commentariat, use the fact that they have just under ²⁄₅ of the population opposed it to rationalise larding the bill with amendments effectively legalising all forms of discrimination and vilification against sexual minorities, as long as it comes from religious belief or deeply-felt visceral disgust. Hopefully, such amendments will get smacked down, as moderate Tories vote them down or abstain, though this is complicated by the fact that the electorates which returned majority results against marriage equality were predominantly Labor electorates with large ethnic-minority populations; and while this might not put them within easy reach of the (right-of-centre, big-business-oriented) Liberal Party, its more reactionary/traditionalist offshoot, the Australian Conservatives, not to mention the handful of religious fringe parties that cluster around the bottom end of Senate results, may be salivating at the prospect.

It is a good thing that the campaign is over, and that (hopefully) this issue will be sorted before the end of the year (after which, Australia may, slowly and painfully, have entered the civilised world where centre-right parties have realised that they have more to gain from affluent, established gay couples who can be persuaded that they should pay less tax than from a handful of burned-over religious zealots and the embittered and fearful). However, that is not the same as saying that this is a good result. For one, the legitimacy of a survey into whether a minority should be given fundamental human rights is, to say the least, deeply questionable. (Imagine, if you will, a survey on whether women should be allowed to own property in their own names, or if non-white people should be considered to be human for legal purposes.) Human rights should not be a matter of public opinion, and, if this has demonstrated anything, making them such serves only to embolden bigots.

Beyond the impact on the question, this episode may have other consequences. For one, the highly unorthodox way it was organised may have set a problematic precedent. Not being an election, a referendum or a plebiscite, the survey was not organised by the Australian Electoral Commission; instead, the Bureau of Statistics, until now a quiet, apolitical bureaucracy concerned with gathering data and tabulating it, was transformed by fiat into a parallel electoral commission, only without the responsibilities of one. From this, it is not hard to see it being used as a political football, and made to trot out an endless succession of surveys designed to bolster populist arguments and beat up on scapegoats. (Perhaps some year, to get One Nation's support at passing something in the Senate, there'll be an official ABS postal survey on whether Muslims should be allowed to enter Australia, and a 30% “no” result will be used to legislate for a ban on the sale of halal snack packs to under-18s, or something similarly idiotic?)

Secondly, and more immediately, in agreeing to this exercise, Turnbull may have inadvertently doomed his own party to losing the next election. While they have been polling badly recently, they have a history of scraping through with narrow victories. However, one thing that a referendum plebiscite survey on whether gay people should have human rights has achieved is a record surge of younger Australians, who vote predominantly left-of-centre, registering to vote. Many of these young people will be living with their parents, in marginal LNP seats, what with the traditionally left-leaning inner cities becoming unaffordable; when the next election comes around, they will vote. The LNP has reasons to be nervous about this, and the ALP probably shouldn't sleep too easily, given how poorly its rightward triangulation on various policies (particularly Australia's harsh deterrence policies against refugees) plays with younger voters.

australia culture war gay human rights politics 1

2017/11/3

The British supermarket chain Sainsbury's is doubling up on the fashion for vinyl records. For a while, they (alongside their rival Tesco) have been selling a small selection of classic albums, repressed on 180 gram luxury vinyl, to shoppers who want to own a slice of pop-cultural history in its most authentic format, and to be at one with Led Zeppelin or Amy Winehouse or whoever in a way that those listening to the iTunes download can never be. And to think: all this at your local supermarket. And now, they're launching their own brand of vinyl-only compilation albums. Named Sainsbury's Own Label, the records, overseen by pop historian and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley, will contain classic vintage tracks, and come enclosed in retro-styled monochromatic sleeves, for that extra dose of supermarket-fresh vintage authenticity. Two albums have been announced: Coming Into Los Angeles, which features Californian rock from the sixeventies such as Fleetwood Mac and The Monkees, and Hi Fidelity, which leans slightly (but never excessively) prog, with the likes of Mike Oldfield, 10CC and Roxy Music, and sounds like just the thing for putting that expensively restored vintage hi-fi system through its paces.

Which is an interesting business decision (and it's good that Bob Stanley is getting paid for his expertise), though I'm not sure it makes that much sense. From what I understand, the fashion for vinyl is less about its function as a sound carrier than its role as an ark of Authenticity, a token of connection to a legendary album, artist or era. Surveys back this up, showing that almost half of all vinyl bought is never played, and instead purchased to have something to keep whilst listening to a streaming service. In other words, a vinyl record is primarily a 12" collectible poster, representing the body of music one enjoys listening to or the artist one admires; that it contains a legacy sound carrier adds gravitas to the mystique, but is secondary. And as a sound carrier, vinyl records leave a lot to be desired; other than the bulk and the fiddly nature of putting a record on, as compared to queueing up a track on Spotify or YouTube, the sound quality of vinyl is objectively, measurably inferior to digital sound in a number of ways. Some of those shortcomings (the surface noise, the “warm” frequency distortion) can, to those who grew up with them, induce warm feelings of nostalgia, but that does not make vinyl's fidelity superior, as some of its champions are wont to claim, except, of course, at producing a characteristically vinyl-like experience. To claim that the experience of recorded music with the surface noise, distortion and constricted dynamic range and frequency response of vinyl is “better” or more “authentic” is a claim of subjective faith. (And then, there is the fact that the PVC that vinyl records are made of is pretty toxic stuff, impossible to recycle, and slowly emitting toxic particles as they age.)

It seems that what Sainsbury's are trying to do with Own Label is effectively sell the equivalent of Spotify playlists of “Classic Tracks”, only pressed to a stylish-looking vinyl record. Fair play that they slapped some modishly retro-modernist artwork on the cover, but it really does seem like the worst of both worlds: none of the collectibility of vinyl albums (except perhaps to a handful of people who fetishise commercial ephemera, and wish to get a head start on tomorrow's) and less convenient than listening to it on a computer or phone or digital system. Good luck to them, but I suspect this might not be a runaway success story.

authenticity bob stanley music retro sainsbury's sixeventies vinyl 1

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