Saturday, 13 February 2010

Alexander McQueen and the rise of Shania Twain journalism

I don't know an awful lot about fashion, but I do know that anybody who's ever pulled on a pair of jeans for anything other than the purpose of manual labour is implicitly acknowledging certain things whether they like it or not. There's some proper "no shit, Sherlock" stuff coming up next, but please bear with me. Firstly, they are acknowledging that clothes can be more than just clothes in the most basic functional sense, and the things we wear make very specific statements about us, both as individuals and as a culture. By extension therefore, the people who create or model the stuff we end up wearing can be said to have a tangible influence upon society on all manner of levels. It may not be the most important, or even positive, of influences, but it's undeniably a significant one. You can find all the proof of this you'll ever need if you hang around the Oxford Street branch of Top Shop on any given Saturday. According to a friend of mine who works in the fashion business, it was well-known that Alexander McQueen, who was found dead on Thursday, had endured a grim few years on a personal level but, specifics aside, her view (and that of many others) was that the world of fashion had lost one of its brightest and most inspirational stars. She described him as "a genius in the vein of Yves Saint-Laurent; dark and troubled, but a romantic capable of great beauty". During Massive Attack's London gig later that evening, 3D dedicated Unfinished Sympathy to McQueen, similarly praising him as "an absolute genius".

Some people seem to have bristled at the use of this word in such a context, most notably Toby Young on the Hurleygraph's blog the following day. Rather like the once-omnipresent Canadian pop-country singer mentioned in the title above, Young wasted little time in declaring that the idea of McQueen being a 'genius' certainly didn't impress him much. Disguising his observations as an insight into the shallow world of the fashionista, he proceeded to beast McQueen over the course of a few hundred words. At the point he must have actually filed this tripe - the condensed version being "I met McQueen a few times and didn't like him", coupled with "the world of fashion is superficial" - McQueen probably hadn't even been dead 24 hours.

We see a lot of this sort of thing nowadays (thanks, Internet, but really, you needn't have), and here's how it usually goes. Person of note dies, people whose lives were in some way affected by dead person's work or life express sadness and grief on one hand, mad race to be first at letting the world know how unimpressed they are on the other. "Why all the fuss? He/she was just a pop singer/actor/fashion designer, and hardly a genius". As if only an Einstein could be such a thing and that it's unthinkable someone could be, within their very specific field of endeavour, a genius. In fact, this is more or less Young's opening point - Alexander McQueen? He just made frocks. Oscar Wilde and Jimi Hendrix? Now there's genius! Whilst I wouldn't argue with the latter point, you can always find someone, especially nowadays, who'll take against a well-established consensus for shits and giggles or, in some cases, with absolute sincerity. Such as the person who once insisted to me that Hendrix was simply an over-rated hack blues player, and that the Stone Roses' John Squire was by far the better guitarist. I swear to God.

It seems contrarianism is good for business, though, and in these straitened times people will do whatever it takes to get that money. Someone recently described the practitioners of this strain of lazy, bear-baiting, 'Shania Twain journalism' as "trollumnists", which I suppose is close enough for jazz. To me, it's just further depressing evidence of the general coarsening of public debate we find ourselves faced with; "freedom of speech" or "speaking one's mind" becomes the default justification for anyone in the business of spouting poorly-informed, insensitive, boorish crap. Elsewhere, in the Stygian depths of the comments sections, there's a bloody great hole through which anachronistic concepts like "common courtesy" are slowly draining away, while the malignant, paranoid ravings of what used to be known as The Silent Majority are cheerfully validated by a procession of lionhearted souls who supposedly speak truth to power but who are actually, for the most part, idiots. So, take a bow, Rod Liddle, Jeremy Clarkson, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Kelvin Mackenzie, Richard Littlejohn, etc., etc. You've all done very well. By the way, meet Toby.

You could argue, I suppose, that Young is merely shining a light on a world overly preoccupied with the transient and the trivial and calling for a little perspective in the process. If you were being extremely polite, that is. But how polite would you want to be towards someone whose familiarity with his subject extends little further than having been rubbed up the wrong way by him and his retinue at a few photo shoots many years ago, yet remains sufficiently slighted that he'd apparently use the guy's death as an opportunity to exact some kind of revenge? Throw in a handful of cliches as applicable to the rag trade as the world of haute couture, add a few back-handed compliments about McQueen's "creative flair" (but no real talent, eh, Toby? Just "prima donna-ish...force of personality"), and hit "send". Someone on Young's Twitter feed complimented him for his "courageous and funny" piece. If we're living in a world where sticking the boot in on the freshly dead can be described as "courageous and funny", then we're fucking doomed.

Nice as it is to be paid for having an opinion, I would hope there could still be some value placed upon holding your tongue once in a while. Especially when the person on whom you're offering your "verdict" has, literally, just died. But if you really feel you must be heard, then why not ask yourself a few questions first? Y'know, questions such as, "Is this person a mass-murderer, or a despot who's brought misery and hardship to millions?". How about, "Did this person, through his or her work as a pop singer or a fashion designer, contribute in some way to the gaiety of nations?". Once you've done that, you might want to do everyone a favour and consider this perennial of maternal wisdom - if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

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