This has vexed me somewhat and you know what happens when I’m vexed, the blog cogs start turning!
The NME (yes, they are apparently still a thing) have published a bit of a hatchet job on a record, Frank Turner’s ‘No Man’s Land’, that has yet to be released (bar one song), jumping on the story created by Milk Teeth’s Becky Blomfield over on Twitter who stated in a multi-tweet post that Frank Turner shouldn’t release an album about female historical figures as it’s just him profiteering over women and people of various races when he’s never been a woman or anything other than a white man himself. For context, Turner’s press release for the new record and accompanying podcast series states: “13 episodes and tracks about real historical women… including one about my mum! Exploring and celebrating their fascinating stories.” Is that really such a wrong thing to do?
Seemingly no stranger to controversy, Turner has also recently been held to account by fellow artist Koji who queried the name of Frank’s hardcore side-project Möngöl Hörde deeming it to have racist connotations. Frank replied that the name was taken from a Van Pelt song from two decades ago and that it wasn’t decided upon with any offence considered; and let’s face it, aren’t there other band names through the ages that could be deemed offensive due to their connotations (Joy Division and indeed New Order to name but two). Does that mean we should ignore or even worse re-write history, or is it a good thing that such terminology exists to act as a reminder of what has happened throughout human history whether good or bad?
I’ve never met Frank Turner, but whenever I’ve gone to see him at a gig or a spoken word-style occasion, he’s always been articulate, respectful and intelligent. He’s been a big supporter of the Safe Gigs For Women initiative and performs at a lot of charitable occasions. He has sometimes been a target for the far left-leaning crew who don’t think he’s ‘punk enough’ to pitch himself as a folk/punk artist, but I’ve never considered him to be one to try and latch on to a scene, he’d rather just produce good music and tour endlessly so that as many people as possible can experience his live shows. Again, is this such a bad thing?
I’m not saying that Turner’s music is to everyone’s tastes by any means, but the current criticism around how he shouldn’t write about things he hasn’t personally experienced is at best naïve and at worst massively hypocritical. With some critics citing Turner’s race, gender and class as reasons why he shouldn’t be partaking in this particular endeavour, the nay-sayers appear to be pigeonholing as much as those they so vehemently protest against. It’s 2019 guys, an age where gender is supposedly fluid and no-one should be picked out negatively due to their skin colour. Mental health is also massively stigmatised yet some of the comments directed at Turner are vile and hate-filled and in other circles would be considered bullying. Hmm…
So, what are the dos and don’ts for artists when considering album subject matter, and are we really the ones who should judge? If songs should only be written about experiences that have been personally lived, does this mean that no song should ever be about dragons or the war, or a different country, race or religion to that of the author? How do people think history has generally been passed down over the centuries? Spoiler alert, it’s through song, and the written word.
Having listened to Frank’s first podcast (about Sister Rosetta Tharpe), it’s fascinating to hear him go and explore her origins, her performances and her music in her homeland. He does it by bringing in local (and female) historian Nwaka Onwusa to discuss Sister Rosetta’s tale and his studio discussion is with singer-songwriter Emily Barker who has also written a song about the same subject. Funnily enough, Turner has also brought in a completely female group of musicians (and producer) for this record but people still assumed he had made it with usual backing band the (all male) Sleeping Souls and criticised him for it before looking up the facts. And again, does this really matter anyway? Surely we should always just employ the best people for any given job?
I certainly learned a thing or two from Turner’s initial podcast but the doubters continue. “He’s just cashing in” – what, by writing songs about women that people quite possibly haven’t heard of? Surely that’s not a profitable scheme? “He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman” – that’s fair enough, but should that really stop him from writing and performing songs about women’s lives? He’s not writing from the point of view of the women from what I’ve heard, so is it really that big a deal? To me, it smacks of people going out of their way to be offended, without figuring out what they’re actually offended about. I’ve attempted to engage in debate with some of the critics who are so keen to tag Turner in on their comments, yet none have responded.
The only saving grace about this NME piece is that the comments are nearly 100% in support of Frank. And of course I did point out to them that it’s rather hypocritical linking up with paid ad providers who post clickbait stories at the foot of your articles that state if you’re a woman over 50 you should cut your hair short. Ah well, only another 12 tracks of supposed controversy to go…