Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock contribute the third “sociological playlist” in our July series. They responded to our request on an episode of their podcast, which can be listened to here. They introduce the playlist below, and it can be listened to in full here.
The Meg-John and Justin desert island discs
In this episode of our podcast we talked about our desert island discs – the songs that we most relate to our Meg-John and Justin project. We began the podcast by reflecting on whether we ‘count’ as sociologists, given that neither of us formally studied sociology at any time and neither of us are academics. We figured that we kind-of are given the importance of the sociopolitical lens in our work together (neoliberal capitalism would certainly be on our podcast bingo card). Also our joint project did emerge from a sociological project which MJ was involved with: the book Mediated Intimacy which analyses contemporary sex advice. Our book Enjoy Sex was an attempt to write a sex advice book which was informed by this analysis, and took a more sociological approach.
We figured, though, that if we are anything we are probably biopsychosociologists given that we always try to weave together an understanding of how sex and relationships – with ourselves, others and the world – work within us, between us, and in relation to cultural discourses and systems and structures of power.
We were meant to choose 6-12 tracks, but we did a sneaky 13, plus this extra not-so-serious intro song which we’ve mentioned (at some length) on a previous podcast. Some of our picks here are joint ones, and for others one of us has taken the lead on the pick, and the commentary. As we mention later, if we did have a theme tune we’d want it written by Charismatic Megafauna or Grace Petrie, but right now we’re happy with our sometimes shambling: ‘It’s the Meg-John and Justin Podcast – Yey.’
1. George Michael, “FastLove”
We’ve talked about so many George Michael songs on the podcast (pray for us St. George). We could easily have picked twelve George Michael songs for this playlist. We talked about Jesus to a Child in the show on sadness, and have certainly mentioned I Want Your Sex as a song that is against everything we stand for (‘sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should’, tut tut George). Freedom ‘90 underlines the vital importance of consent in all relationships (‘all we have to see is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me’ – much better). We’d also like to mention Club Tropicana as a socialist anthem ‘Fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone’. Could we read the ‘C’ Wham are talking about here as communism perhaps?
The song FastLove is actually about the value of casual sex and erotic friendships, nicely pointing out something we often speak about in relation to ace and aro folk: that erotic and romantic relationships don’t need to happen at all, or in the same place. We could also relate the idea of FastLove to our skepticism around New Relationship Energy and hot love: our sense that the social construction of romantic love, and falling in love, make it extremely hard to engage in ethical, consensual, and intentional relationships when we default to that cultural script. This is one reason we’ve emphasised slowness in general, and slow relating on the podcast.
George was also a big Joy Division fan, which leads us nicely onto our next choice…
2. New Order, “Perfect Kiss”
Justin writes: I’ve talked about 24 Hour Party People a lot, which is a film by Michael Winterbottom starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, who is one of the founders of the record label Factory Records. I talk about the film when we talk about ebbs and flows and uncertainty. Particularly the bit where Christopher Ecclestone appears as Boethius and says ‘inconstancy is my very essence’.
There’s a lot here about hierarchies and freedom too. Tony Wilson signed an agreement (in his own blood) that no-one would own anything, the band would get 50% of all profits and the label would get 50% of the profits. ‘Everyone has the freedom to fuck off.’ So consent was on-going with constant check-ins and agreement for each band to release a record whenever they wanted to. This didn’t always work out well.
I also love the story about how it was about Manchester and Tony Wilson’s abundance of civic pride. Factory Records and New Order were responsible for building the Hacienda nightclub (which was a disastrous business adventure for both) putting the Manchester cultural and music scene on the map. Although Factory Records eventually failed, the legacy for Manchester lived on, but also the legacy of how collectivity and non-hierachical structures can work. It’s a story about collective agency, community, creativity, and also belief. It’s incredibly hopeful and daft and I love the story and the film.
Here’s Perfect Kiss from New Order, how cool do they look in this video?!
3. Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”
MJ writes: We spoke about Fleetwood Mac on the breaking up the band episode because they notoriously had many breakups within the band and many of their songs were about this. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham brought Fleetwood Mac huge success in the mid seventies, but their volatile relationship almost tore the band apart. One of the best-selling albums in music history – Rumours – was written while several affairs and break-ups were happening in the band, and influencing the music they were writing.
Stevie Nicks wrote Landslide, which is MJ’s fav song of Fleetwood Mac’s. It was about a moment when things fell apart for her after her first band wasn’t picked up. She wrote that “looking out at the Rocky Mountains pondering the avalanche of everything that had come crashing down on us … at that moment, my life truly felt like a landslide in many ways”. However it was after that that she went on to join Fleetwood Mac and have extraordinary success, as well as extraordinary pain.
I relate this to the idea that things falling apart – or the landslide – as potentially opening things up. In our content around Covid-19 we’ve spoken about how the pandemic could be a moment for recognising that systems which don’t serve us need dismantling in order to rebuild something different on stronger foundations. This applies to our inner systems, family systems, community systems, and damaging social systems and structure: something that #BlackLivesMatter is currently highlighting in relation to abolishing the police and prison systems, for example.
Another way of reading Landslide is about the cultural of romantic relationships:
Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m gettin’ older, too
We could consider how we build our life around relationships: our common thread of the cultural prioritising of romantic love over all the other kinds. Gettin’ older we might embrace changin’, get bolder, and reconsider building our lives around one other person in this way, focusing instead on nurturing our relationships with ourselves, our people, and the communities which we need for solidarity.
4. Half Man Half Biscuit, “Man of Constant Sorrow (with a garage in constant use)”
Justin writes: I mention Half Man Half Biscuit because they bring me a lot of joy. However, they are quite antithetical to a lot of what we talk about on the show! They, like me, are miserable buggers and quite snarky.
Half Man Half Biscuit started out as a unemployed post punk band who would throw in nostalgia, esoteric British sporting and cultural reference points with an anti-capitalist, specifically anti-Tory neoliberal, agenda. Their work has matured and grown throughout the years with their satirical gunsights set on inauthenticity, consumerism, fashionable and entirely borrowed radicalism, bourgeois values, and pseudo-intellectualism. They also just have very particular beefs with the man who works at the local 24 hour garage, people who keep a torch in the back of their car, and middle aged men in lycra Team Sky replica kit.
They are also capable of writing quite beautiful folk songs full of pathos. I imagine the ‘man of constant sorrow’ to be someone who has never been able to be truly vulnerable with someone, or who has never been allowed to cry. The melancholia described in the song is quite beautiful, as is the pain of the neighbour who would like to find a way to connect but can’t – ‘he has nothing for you to borrow, and a mastiff in the back running loose.
5. Janelle Monáe, “Screwed”
MJ write: Janelle Monáe is a black queer feminist singer-songwriter and actor (her films include the stunning Moonlight and Hidden Figures). In the song Screwed she is quoting notable queer Oscar Wilde who said:
‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power’
See, if everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
You screw me and I’ll screw you too
Everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
Now ask yourself who’s screwing you
Janelle herself relates to bi- and pansexuality, and has posted in support of non-binary day. Screwed uses the double meaning of the word ‘screwed’ to express Monae’s anger at being screwed by systems of power as a woman, a person of colour, and a queer person in America. It also highlights the importance of having control and agency over your body – and who and how you screw – despite social and political restrictions.
The ideas about sex and power which Monae plays with in this song also relate to our common themes about how people are controlled via shame about sexuality and sex normativities of various kinds, including compulsory sex, heteronormativity, mononormativity, coital (PIV) imperative.
Sex is power in the ways that discourses about sex shape us. The anxious focus on learning and performing our sexuality, within the private sphere of coupled relationships, can distract us from vital collective struggle and individualise suffering which is actually damaging cultural messages. It also prevents us from having good (present, consensual) sex. Sex is also frequently used as a mechanism of power over people, as with non-consensual sex, sexual harrassment, and the ways in which marginalised bodies are treated in relation to sex.
6. Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”
Justin writes: DNA starts with a quote from FOX News which calls out Lamar for his views on Police brutality and suggests that rap (and black culture more widely) is the cause of racism. They reference his song ‘Alright’ from his previous album and the line ‘And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure’. The refrain of this song ‘We’re gonna be alright’ was sung at Black Lives Matter protests in 2015.
“As the movement receded in the 1970s and as a bipartisan political attack on the welfare state gained traction, the mantras of the “ culture of poverty” and “personal responsibility” reemerged as popular explanations for Black deprivation. Today, the various problems that pervade Black communities are largely believed to be of Black people’s own making.” – keeanga-yamahtta taylor
So DNA is an angry rebuke to right wing commentators which is about Lamar’s story of overcoming racism, injustice and brutality. I think it’s also about how black people have to be extraordinary to be seen and overcome (often through entertainment or sport). It’s a song which is biopsychosocial ‘I got loyalty got royalty inside my DNA’. Where black people are attacked for being lesser biologically and psychologically, Lamar turns it around to demonstrate how you can separate those out from the social and that it’s the social that is killing black people in America.
The flows in this song are incredible and it’s so powerful and leaves me feeling out of breath just listening to it.
7. Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
MJ writes: The song on this playlist which impacts me the most emotionally is Both Sides Now. I know I’m channeling my inner 1960s hippy with a couple of my choices, but the music which always spoke to me growing up was the music of this era: singer-songwriters like Nicks, Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, and the music of Motown: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles.
Both Sides Now makes me feel a kind of beautiful sadness. Mitchell describes how she has looked at love closely, seeing its illusions and its realities, but even after all that looking ‘I really don’t know love at all’. Sometimes I feel like that having studied love for so many years but still being unable to ‘step outside of culture’ and to experience love entirely in the ways that feel so important to me (consensual, mutual, and through all my relationships and communities).
In this song Mitchell is also talking about thinking in non-binary ways about everything. She describes looking at clouds, life, and love from ‘both sides’: clouds as ice-cream castles in the air or the thing that ruins our plans, love as a fairy tale come true or giving yourself away, life as living the dream or just living every day. Perhaps there is some sense of holding the bothness, paradox and complexity here. Could we try to see all these things in multiple ways at once? Could we find an alternative to the binary of grasping the kind of clouds, love or life that we want, and trying to avoid or escape the kind we don’t want?
8. Mich Cota, “kija/care”
Justin writes: I saw Mich Cota perform as the first act supporting someone else and it was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever experienced. She has an amazing stage presence, her voice is incredible, and I’ve never seen a crowd so utterly transfixed by her.
Mich Cota is a two spirit Algonquin woman, which is a native population in what is now known as Quebec in Canada. She originally sang this song in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, so it’s a song about resistance.
It’s one of my absolute favourite albums and I just want more people to hear it. It’s poppy, you can dance to it. It’s joyful, sad and life affirming.
9. Nina Simone, “Feeling Good”
MJ writes: The wonderful Feeling good also relates to our joy podcast, and our whole range of shows which take a biopsychosocial approach to feelings, exploring what they enable in relation to social justice, for example.
This song was written to express a particular kind of euphoria: that which comes with liberation from oppression. It was written by British songwriters Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for their stage musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. Apparently this was an allegorical musical about power, class and race’. Feeling Good is the song the black character sings after winning in the face of racism.
On the podcast we’ve often talked about Audre Lorde and more recently about Adrienne Maree Brown. Both write about the importance of tuning into joy, pleasure and the erotic: to be driven by this standard of experience, and to insist on it for all.
Returning to St George, George Michael also did a cover of this song.
At this point on the podcast we took a moment to consider the two – slightly closer to home – artists who we might love to write our theme song, if we had one…
10. Charismatic Megafauna, “Sorry”
Justin really likes this band.
“Their grubby synth sound is shot through with surrealist feminist and sexual undertones, as lyrics traverse everything from female ejaculation to blokes in spandex or their general disdain for Theresa May.”
11. Grace Petrie, “Black tie”
MJ loves queer leftie singer-songwriter Grace Patrie, particularly the anthem Black Tie which includes lines like: ‘It’s a bloody nightmare tryna fight the spread of bigotry and fear that’s uniting Piers Morgan and Germaine Greer’ and ‘the images that fucked ya were a patriarchal structure. And you never will surrender to a narrow view of gender.’ In this moment of trans moral panic the song always makes me feel a good combo of anger and hope.
12. Martin Creed, “Thinking/Not Thinking”
We’ve seen Martin Creed together, at the only gig we’ve been to together. We’ve talked about his song ‘Thinking/Not Thinking’ a few times on the podcast when we are discussing binaries and endings and being present.
Justin often mentions Duchamp’s bathroom/kitchen door: one door simultaneously closing the bathroom door whilst opening the kitchen door (and vice versa). In this song one chord is thinking and the other chord is not thinking, and the act of doing one prevents us from doing the other.
Also the video has the smallest and largest dog breeds and it’s great.
13. Salt n Pepa, “Let’s Talk About Sex”
Finally we covered the song that we would never want to be our theme song!
Justin writes: I did a talk at an event once when there was going to be some intro ‘zing’ music before he came on. They asked if that would be okay, and I said ‘yeah, so long as it’s not Let’s Talk About Sex’. They played it anyway (Not Consensual!) and as the music and the applause died down I said to the audience that I’d already threatened to walk off if they played this song. I was only half joking.
I don’t really like the song a great deal even though it is the anthem for the work that we do (Push It is so much better). It’s a sad reminder that we still as a culture can’t talk about sex and that when we do it’s either unalloyed sex positivity of ‘doing it’ or of doing it but making sure it’s safe (with the assumption that all sex is naturally pleasurable for everyone).
And that’s our playlist! Thanks for reading, watching, listening 🙂
The playlist can be listened to in full here.
Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, Gender: A Graphic Guide, How To Understand Your Gender, Life Isn’t Binary, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice. Websites: rewriting-the-rules.com, megjohnandjustin.com. Twitter: @megjohnbarker, Instagram: @meg_john_barker.
Justin Hancock has been a sex educator for a couple of decades, working with young people in schools, youth clubs, and clinics. He also trains other sex educators and runs the BishUK website and also now offers a one-to-one consultation service where you can get advice from him in person. You can find him on Twitter here.