Archives For Culture

I wrote something for the Tab about something I hate. Lowbrow. Bite me.

http://sheffield.tab.co.uk/2014/05/19/headphone-hype-2/

“From the small time promoter who spent half his loan on a pair of Sennheisers, to the 15-year-old sporting fake Beats his mum got him at the market so he’d be down with the latest playground craze, my qualm is the same. Today, massive over-ear headphones are seldom worn for their sonic virtues, but instead as lavish bits of jewellery and little more… owning an expensive pair of headphones might make you look like a DJ, but it doesn’t miraculously make you into a DJ.”

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The Gentrification of Trailer Park Living

Half of young people now living at home with parents, are posh caravans the answer?

Recently the Guardian revealed how 48% of Europe’s 18 to 30 year olds are now living at home with their parents. To plenty of young adults currently wondering how to find a little independence and a place of their own, these figures came as no surprise.

We’re the first generation in living memory to be told to expect a lower standard of living than our parents and our student debt is among the highest in the developed world. The little social housing left is reserved for people really in need, property prices are record high, banks aren’t leading, the energy markets are crooked and well paid jobs are few and far between.

But here’s the good news. If like so many, your only options are staying with mum and dad, or sleeping in a caravan…. the caravan is actually looking like an increasingly appealing and acceptable choice.

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Across American and via the Internet come the euphemistically named ‘tiny houses people.’ Hipster trailer park heroes seems more accurate to me. They’re currently trying, and succeeding, in making trailer park living not only comfortable, acceptable and civilised but trendy, eco-friendly and somewhat luxurious.

The idea of ‘returning’ to homes of less that 1000 squire feet has been in revival since the 1970s, but the recent resurgence and branding of the ‘movement’ only gathered pace in the US after the financial crash of 2007. It’s an architectural and social movement driven by some inventive craftsmen and designers and epitomised on a selection of popular blogs, and it’s even about to get it’s first TV show.

By drawing on knowledge from house boating, traditional cabins and caravanning, tiny house people have been creating some functional and impressive little buildings – comparatively affordable, hi-tech, efficient or even self-sufficient units. Look at these things; some are like ultimate little hideouts designed for urban free-living, rammed full of gadgets, space saving mind fucks and creature comforts.

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Admittedly life in a house the size of a traditional caravan or shipping container isn’t for everyone. Plainly many 21st century adults simply wouldn’t fit. But even if you’re modestly sized like myself, a certain lifestyle adjustment is required for life in a tiny house. The philosophy and ethos promoted by the movement is a necessary precursor – a simple, slimed down life style. Such a life style is innately eco-friendly and very, very economical.

Unlike traditional travellers who’s choice to live in caravans is due to cultural heritage, tiny house people willingly select this mode of living. But like traditional travellers, it’s often because they favor simplicity and freedom, freedom from the alienation and debilitating restrains imposed by modern consumerism and home ownership.

Despite this, rightly or wrongly, the ‘tiny houses’ identity has been so rigorously marketed by the ‘tiny house people’ because they’re keen to emerge as distinct. They want to distance themselves from the sigma and prejudice that those living in more tradition caravans are so often subjected to.

Tiny house people in the US are twice as likely to have a collage degree and don’t earn any less than your average American [Link]. They’re not people who would otherwise be out on the street, they’re people who no longer want to play the increasingly demanding game of bills, council tax and mortgage/rent. Some try to pass off their tiny houses as alternative studio-flat on wheels, but lets be frank, they’re just spectacular bourgeois caravans. They’re so affordable because just like caravans and “RVs” they don’t require building permits and the majority are readily portable.

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Such is the ‘cost of living crisis’ rent controls and regulating energy markets are now being seriously discussed in parliament. The acute housing shortage has made even finding a house difficult and property prices are eye watering, especially in the south. And if you are lucky enough to get a mortgage off the banks, you’ll be paying it back for a debilitating and depressing amount of time.

Apparently the recover has begun, and unsurprisingly it’s the property market that’s excelling itself, with no less that 6% growth. But that’s largely because the UK’s property market is little more than a monopoly board for foreign investors. Wages remain stagnant and a booming property market only benefits the people who already own the country. Our parents and grandparents made a killing on property, but entering that property market is a dream for half of young people today.

Is an incongruous idea – That some of the many young middle class adults unable to purchase property today could now adopt a mode of living once associated with poverty. Well, not really. Technology, the climate and our unbalanced society have change sufficiently to make the idea quite plausible.

The remaining questions are obviously land, and regulation? Once you’ve got yourself a cozy little house, where do you park it? Well, tiny house people gentrified the caravans so they’ve also gentrified caravan parks. ‘Tiny house villages’ are now a thing – private, exclusive, comparatively affordable little communities. It’s only a matter of time until the UK gets its first village.

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I wrote an article for VICE about a story I initially blogged about a year a ago, based on an interview taken by Alex Deadman (@Deadmanjunglist). Read it here,

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/the-rise-and-fall-of-bassline?utm_source=vicetwitteruk

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it’s the story of Niche club and the genera of Bassline (a mad and unique form of speed garage) that was created in the club.

Like all dance music scene it attracted drug use. But trouble with the police only started when a turf war between drug dealers began. The police made war of the scene and had the genera effectively banned from the city.

It’s a classic example of the war on drugs damaging music and nightlife and I’m really glad the story is finally getting the media attention it deserves.

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This appeared on the Huffington Post student blog and pretty much went viral. Decent – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/the-death-of-student-actism_b_4904133.html 

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalised racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

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It was “re-fresher’s week” and we were sat round on a circle of fold out chairs and boxes drinking warm cider out of mugs. We were taking turns to explain what had brought us here, to University. People were answering honestly and the notion most commonly expressed was that they just wanted to get away from home. It’s an impetus previous generations will struggle to understand. With the employment and property markets as they are, going away to Uni was the only realistic way to get away from mum and dad at eighteen, to find some independence, to ‘find our selves.’ But it’s also unavoidably a somewhat perverse reason to go into higher education; selfish, myopic, indulgent even – racking up loans and maxing out overdrafts just to get away from our doting parents.

As the question circulated it came to the turn of a philosophy undergrad that we’d only recently met. “Well,” he said, “I came to learn how to live… and how to die, I guess. I want to understand the forces at work in the world so I can change it for the better whilst I’m alive.” The room rippled with smirks followed by a hush of confusion. The boy blushed and conversation moved on.

I was too cowardly to defend him that night. My social survival mechanisms learnt in secondary school kicked in and I bit my tongue. But I wish I’d defended him. After all, truly, I had hoped to escape that ‘high school cool’ at university. I thought, finally, it would be cool to care. After all we were all paying a fortune to study here, why would we scoff at those who are passionate about what they study? Maybe, finally, people wouldn’t roll their eyes and sigh with disapproval when someone wanted to discuss whether or not Israel has a right to exist, or if there is a meaning to this life, even. Those hopes were misled, and now I am complicit.

The stark truth is university culture has fundamentally changed in the past decade. The anoraks are out and the ‘lads’ are in. “Education, education, education!” said Blair. An entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins went skipping off to “unaii” for the “experience” of a life time. Previous generations were rocked by Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. We lusted for gap years, Jägerbombs and casual sex.

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It’s an infuriating paradox, but intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture. Students are making more headlines for urinating on war memorials and telling rape jokes than for fighting injustice or advancing progressive ideas. Too many went, for all the wrong reasons and universities are fast becoming playgrounds for middle class kids to postpone their adulthood. They are dominated by an ugly ‘lad’ culture that fuses the elitist arrogance of public school rugby with a distinctively American, extroverted and stupefied ‘jock’ persona.

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest. Our own union has been powerless to stop the ACS (Accommodation and Commercial Services) setting up a subsidiary company of the university that can effectively be run as ruthless, profit hungry corporation. Sheffield’s union, apparently the best in the country, now contains overpriced shops, a selection of banking outlets and a fine dining restaurant (seriously) – all installed to exploit us not serve us.

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The apathy that’s infecting Universities is not occurring in a vacuum. It’s part of a wider trend that is characteristic of our entire generation. Politicians have been able to so readily trample on the interest of young people because they know we don’t turn out to vote. The prescribed austerity has hardly touch the baby boomers, who reaped the benefits of the post war boom and extravagance of the Thatcher years, simply because they care enough to walk to a ballot box.

People my age will happily sit on their laptops ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ various worthy causes they purport to endorse. But in reality, all they’re doing is advertising themselves as philanthropists to their thousands of ‘friends’, yet failing to make a difference out in the real world. The Internet and social media have been utilized to magnificent effect in the Arab spring and across the developing world. But here in the cozy west they are insincere platforms of vanity and narcissism.

This generation has so many legitimate grievances; underhand privatization of universities is occurring under our noses, inequality has been rising for half a century and the banking elite continues to leach off the blood of the people. But we’re not scared by the forces that threaten the peace and equality we’ve always known, because we can’t imagine a world where things are any different. To my generation wars are what happened to our grandparents and human rights violations are things that occur in distant lands. We naively take the stability and security of our liberal democracy for granted and have become the most passive and politically impotent generation in living memory.

The student riots of 2010 represented a glimmer of hope. But essentially they were just a furious outburst of shock and anger at the unprecedented tripling of tuition fees (not too dissimilar to the other recent riots). The anger found no unifying purpose, no explanatory ideology or motivating cause. The businessmen who now run universities responded with vengeful and undemocratic means. They have banned sit ins and many forms of protests and the students who care are too fragmented and few to respond at all.

Maybe when the injustice and inequality becomes too much to bear this generation of students will finally wake up. I just hope we don’t leave it so long that the hard won gains of past generations of students are entirely undone.

This article appeared on freethoughtblog.com as guest post –http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2014/01/06/guest-post-critiquing-islam-or-islamophobia/ 

Critiquing Islam and Islamophobia

For nine years in a row a controversial resolution on, “Combating Defamation of Religions,” described by some as an, “international blasphemy law,” has been consistently losing support in the United Nations General Assembly. Until 2010, the only religion mentioned in the legislation was Islam, when the authors of the legislation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, invented the terms; “Judeophobia and Christianophobia,” too quell criticism. Domestically too, the term Islamophobia has come under intense scrutiny, just this week. Opinion is sharply divided.

The discourse here in the UK often mirrors the international debate. In one camp, the appropriateness of the terms very existence is questioned; critics lambast the fact that in reality there is no equivalent terminology in existence to describe those who critique other ideologies and religions (other than Anti-Semitism, of course). They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded. Others, however, maintain that the phenomena is one of the most concerning and potentially dangerous of our age. They contend that the recent increase in Islamophobia is akin to the rise of Anti-Semitism in the last century and portray Islamophobia as a current of hate, engulfing Europe and risking unrest, conflict even.

There is truth on both ends of this dialectic. Islamophobia clearly exists. It is a genuine phenomenon. A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear or hatred of something – one need only browse the Internet momentarily before confronting a plethora of overtly irrational, hateful and inflammatory views directed towards Muslims. On the other hand, the term is very commonly misappropriated to deflect genuine and much needed criticism of Islam. And it is grossly misappropriated when used to scare and accuse those interested in discussing theology, ethics and progress of racism and bigotry.

The comparison between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be useful. Both are genuine and both are often misappropriated. (Israel frequently claims Anti-Semitism is at work when policies of the apartheid state are subject to criticism.) Mohammad Ansar explains here the increasingly worrying similarity between Islamophobia today and Anti-Semitism of the previous century,

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

However, misappropriation of the term is so common, and confusion so easy, because alongside the rising tide of irrational Islamophobia described by Ansar, there is an increasing need for a rational critique Islam (a process Ansar is deeply involved in himself).

Religions are not static or homogeneous. They change / evolve over time and at any one time there is often a plurality of voices within any religion advocating differing interpretations. Rigorous and continuous criticism is an important catalyst for this ongoing process. Denying the need for such a critique, and assuming Islam is static and unchanging, is as crude and misleading as islamophobia itself.

Religion is a historical process of change and modernization. Many early religions described man’s relationship with nature. There were Gods of sun, thunder and earth. Later, religions are often seen to embody man’s relationship with the state. The god of Athena, say, represented to the Greeks their relationship with the polis. Later, the great monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity began to function as the Polis itself. Church and state became one; it was the fear of God, rather that the Police, that kept citizens in line and it was parish / sharia courts who made judicial rulings.

After coming to dominate politics in Europe, Christianity did not give up its political power lightly. From Galileo to Copernicus, for centuries, owners of any voice of decent were persecuted. It was a long and bloody battle before Christianity began to communicate with post enlightenment thought. Christianity was battered and berated into submission by a reformation, enlightenment and a well-established tradition of biblical criticism. The result was the subdued and less political Christianity we know today (maybe not so in America). The simple fact is that Islam is not as far through this stage of its historical development, through which it will be brought to communicate with post enlightenment thought and secular politics, as Christianity, which began it in the 17th century.

Comparatively, very little is know about the true origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. Historical and Archeological examinations of the Bible helped Christians a great deal in reconciling their views with the realities of the modern world. Hopefully the same can be true for Islam.

Incongruity, or harmony?

As I’ve said, Islam is far from monolithic; Muslim feminists and gay rights activists are a historical fact. But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda. This has resulted in the social regression we see in Iran and more recently, Turkey and Egypt. Critiquing the authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic values of these interpretations of Islam is of pivotal importance for the survival and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide.

Another issue at hand is the confluence of Islamic culture with Islamic faith. If such a critique is to be as successful as it has been for Christianity then it is likely that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, will come to reject the dogmatism of religion and embrace Agnosticism and Atheism. It is critical that Apostates of Islam can hold on to their cultural identity despite losing their faith. It’s been decades since people, un-ironically, discussed ‘Christendom’ or ‘Christian culture’ instead of ‘western culture,’ and it’s time Islamic culture was more commonly afforded such respect, as something quite distinct from mere faith.

As conservative Muslim populations living inside western liberal democracies become more vocal and politicized, it must be remembered that a central condition of freedom of religion is the freedom of others to criticize your religion. New Atheism and ‘Dawkinism’ are consistently more abrasive and less patient with conservative religious views. If every time the two groups come into conflict commentators call it Islamophobia, the true meaning and importance of the word will very soon be lost.

I must stress, none of what is said above is written to suggest that the majority of Muslims today are not already moderate and do not accept post-enlightenment thought. Rather, if we are to begin to see the end of political Islam and the small but significant strains of radical Islam that western media is so obsessed with, then a vigorous and open discussion must be had about Islam. At a time when genuinely Islamophobic views are on the rise, keeping such a rational discussion distinct from genuinely Islamophobic, irrational prejudice will be increasingly difficult.

Footnote

1) I tweeted the article to Tom Holland (one of the historians mentioned above), and very kindly he replied,

The essay he sent brings out a far more nuanced distinction between Christianity and Islam than i am able to describe in this article. As he explains in the essay, with a full examination of scripture and historical context, the holism and doctrinairism present in Islamic scripture is likely to distinguish Islam’s own idiosyncratic evolution from Christianity’s journey. It’s well worth a read.

2) Many of the Reddit comments have pointed out that i omit to define either, or draw a clear line between, Islamophobia and legitimate criticism. I merely describe one as rational and the other irrational or prejudice. Unfortunately this was simply not within the scope of the article. Kenan Malik draws such a distinction, quite excellently, here,

http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/when-does-criticism-of-islam-become-islamophobia/

References

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/03/25/104041.html

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

http://cnsnews.com/news/article/un-passes-religious-defamation-resolution-sponsored-islamic-nations-support-dwindles

The idea concerning the evolution of religion and a dialectic of truth is obviously very Hegelian. Taken from Bob Stern’s guide The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Tariq Ramadam is an intellectual and orator who i much admire. He’s brave enough to stand up to a berated Christopher Hitches and defend his faith (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-spKm13v6c), but also question and confront the authority of those within the faith. As a religious apologist, his rational and anti-literalist critique of Islam presents real hope for reconciliation with post enlightenment thought and for internal evolution and progress in the faith. An imminent critique that Islam can shy away from no longer.
However, It is a fact that cannot be omitted, that Professor Ramadam is a rational thinker who owe’s much of his clarity of though to the western philosophical tradition, something he too often denies. In this fascinating but misleading lecture Ramadam claims to talk of ‘Religion’ and ‘spirituality’…. but, he speaks only of reason and Philosophy.

He starts with Isaiah Berlin and Rousseau of freedom. Rousseau famously declared that we must be “forced to be free,” eluding to a distinction Berlin would make over a century later, between positive and negative freedom. I’m with Hegel on this one, Freedom is a ‘social achievement.’ Western, liberal, consumer society constantly reminds us of how we are (negatively) free to get an education, get rich and buy a BMW, but consistently fails to tell us how we are positively free to achieve anything – be that material, ethical or ‘spiritual.’ My freedom to extend my fist ends at your nose, but my freedom to find affluence and peace begins with my society. Finding freedom is a complex and sometimes contradictory process. To be free we must be restrained and those restrictions must be self-legislating but also universal. Only Philosophy can tackle this issues, Religion is impotent in the face of such complexity.
Then Professor Ramadan deplores rule base, dogmatic moral systems – precisely the sort of closed deontologies religions peddle. In a diverse, modern, liberal society only openminded secularism stands any chance of rectifying the plurality of thought on ethical issues we see, with the aim of create cohesive, peaceful societies. Religious dogmatism appeals to emotion and superstition and it makes little room for disagreement, which can only lead to conflict.

And, through-out, Mr Ramadam claims to promote social and cultural understanding and cohesion. But, once again, normatively it is his treasured religion that arrogantly preach moral superiority and the need to convert others to your way of thinking.

This is not a ‘spiritual’ man – this is a rational man. I encourage religious thinkers to follow Mr Ramadam in rationalising their theology. But it would be better still if the religious simply appealed to the source of such rationality, spared the apologists such a Ramadam the painful and laborious task of rectifying and revamping religious dogma and embraced reason and philosophy in it’s purest form as the only source of just and proper moral systems in the modern world.

Do you even lift bro?

Over a period of just four years the alter ego of Aziz Shavershina, Zyzz, rose to “personify a way of life,” as he put it himself. He was probably the most famous figure in the world of amateur, Internet bodybuilding and the poster boy of the so-called ‘Aesthetics’ subculture. For a generation of young men locked into the Internet and social media he was admired as the extreme embodiment of the ‘ideology’ that defined this culture. Zyzz was of a new breed of body builder who’s primary, if not sole, aim of the pursuit is admiration via social media. Shavershina became so immersed in his ‘ideology’ and the character he created, he would take the lifestyle it implies to an extreme his body could not withstand. At just twenty-two, on a holiday of excess and egotistical frenzy in Bangkok his body perspired under the combined strain of testosterone, growth hormones, steroids and an undiagnosed heart defect.

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This distinct new breed of facebook bodybuilders are arguably a faction of a wider ‘lad culture’, defined on the Internet and embodied in websites like Unilad.com, ‘Gym memes’ and ‘Yeah, she squats’. It’s a cultural trend that has undoubtedly been made possible by the uninhibited and inherently narcissistic platform provided by social media. An online world where users are encouraged to share as much as possible and compete with their aesthetically polished, highly stylised and sometime extreme online profiles and personas. Among the posing, pouting and peacocking, teenagers compare outfits, music tastes, opinions and very often now, bodies.

Facebook is saturated with beautified, contrived and sexualised images of girls engaged in the competition, posing in mirrors and nightclubs. But surprisingly there are nearly as many images of young, heterosexual men hogging the lens to show off their muscles in similarly reviling clothes. But ever more now young men are purposefully upload images of themselves with the express intent of updating social media of their progress at the gym. As with Zyzz, impressing on social media actually seems to be one of the primary ends of working out for such men. No doubt they reap rewards in real life. But, it is over social media where they size up rivals and potential suitors and where they find the confirmation of the acceptance they crave and the admiration they desire. Conversely, more traditional ends of the sport might be considered winning competitions and increasing ones physical presence in the real world.

Overt masculinity, chauvinism and general modern vanity are nothing new of coarse. Various facets of modern life have contributed to this continuing shift in our culture – celebrity worship, the commercial beauty industry and the sexualisation of teenagers to mention a few. However it’s clear that this allegiance between social media and amateur body building has created a distinct subculture that’s glaring obvious to anyone that has an internet ‘friend’ who shares pictures of their anaerobic endeavours.

It’s a strange subculture; embracing metro-sexuality and changes in just what it is we consider ‘masculine’, but continuing to push a vicious strain of misogynism. Zyzz’s favourite catch phrase being, “acquire ascetics, disregard bitched.” Much of the colloquial vocabulary of the facebook body-builders has entered wider youth-culture in the past year. ‘Mirin’, meaning admiring, was a personal invention of Zyzz; “Walked around Bangkok all day with no shirt… thi girls mirin brah,” he posted days before his death. Phrases like, “do you even lift bro?” are now so commonplace you can buy the fucking t-shirt.

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Masculinities gone feminine

This seemingly baffling expression of masculinity and the behaviour of those involved in the ‘aesthetics’ / facebook bodybuilding sub-culture, or influenced by it, is a phenomenon best explained by a narrative written, ironically, by a seemingly adverse school of though – feminism. It’s nothing new however to appropriated feminist theory on appearance related pressures faced by women to explain similar pressures increasingly faced by men in modern society. Many prominent feminists, such as Susan Bordo in ‘The Male Body’, have gone on to produce literature specifically aimed at men affected by issues once thought to be exclusively female problems.

In an interview on his sponsor’s web-site “simplyshredded.com,” Zzyz climbs that, “4 years into my training, I can safely say that my motivation to train goes far beyond that of merely impressing people, it is derived from the feeling of having set goals and achieving them and outdoing myself in the gym.” The interview was given on cusp of becoming a professional, Zzyz was almost obliged to toe this borrowed rhetoric. It certainly doesn’t sound at all genuine.

His true motivations, revealed earlier in the interview, are far more typical of the facebook body builders of today, “I was always known as the skinny kid. I remember feeling like a little bitch when I was out with girls, walking next to them and feeling the same size as them.” Social and sexual pressure from society made Zzyz feel completely inadequate with his natural physiology. For him, and many boys today, taking extreme lengths to alter their body shape so as to conform to the hypersexual conceptions of gender stereotypes was his only way to happiness.

Feminists have for decades discusses the apparent free choices that many women make in terms of their appearance, that are in fact pressured upon them. They don’t just discuss bra burning and kicking men in the balls. They discuss why the number of Asian women undergoing eyelid surgery doubled between 1997 and 2001, why eighty per cent of women in the UK are concerned about their weight at any one time (Farrell 1995), why so many black women feel the need to straighten their hair and white women use sunbeds. They examine social norms and cultural practices, such as images in the media and the gender conscious way we raise young girls to explain and liberate women from such pressures.

Jenifer Saul writes, “feminist worries about women’s appearance related pursuits are not criticism of women who engage in and enjoy such pursuits.” Few feminists, contrary to popular myth, believe that women truly don’t, or shouldn’t, enjoy beautifying themselves, for the benefit of men or otherwise. Similarly, I don’t wish to suggest that men don’t enjoy, or shouldn’t be going to the gym. Only that the narrative and images found across social media are narrowing the amount of choices, or body shapes, that young men feel are acceptable. We are now bombarded with images of men with unattainable, impossible physiques; not only now in the mainstream media, but also more intimately over social media, of people we actually know. This leaves many young men feeling like they have to train at the gym to ever feel as if their physique is acceptable to their peers, often within the cultural context of social media.

I believe the evidence for this assertion to be plentiful. Gym memberships have sored and the protein shake industry exploded in close coloration with the rise of social media and facbook. Facebook itself is absolutely flooded by topless images of young men, usually at the gym. Many young men who might not at first seem the types to be particularly image conscious are now going to extreme and sometimes unhealthy lengths to change their body, photograph it and share the images on social media. Those images then contribute to influencing other young men – it’s a vicious cycle.

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In the interview Zzyz goes on to openly describe the social setting that fostered the jealousy and self-conscious vanity that would push him into the gym – “After My HSC, it was holidays, and I started going clubbing every weekend and always noticed whenever a jacked dude walked by, they had a presence a lot greater than that of a ‘normal’ person. The guys respect them, and the girls are all over them.” Many young men today, like Zzyz, truly believe the only way to get the “respect” they so desire is to get ‘ripped’. There nothing wrong with gaining and rewarding respect to someone who stays in shape, who takes car of them-selves. But there’s nothing healthy about the protein shake, supplement fuelled lifestyle that killed Zzyz, and there’s nothing wrong with the natural physiques that most “normal” men posses.

In my view, figures like Zzyz pressure and coerce young men down a dangerous path. Ironically however some commentators have credited celebrity amateur body builders like Zzyz with reviving an interest in fitness and training in young men. Body Building website returnofkings.com stated, “Zyzz single-handedly made bodybuilding popular again among teenage boys, which is no mean feat in a culture where brazen displays of masculinity are stigmatised by the feminist establishment.”

Curiously, masculinity as exhibited by Zzyz, his followers and millions of young men across social median would be considered distinctly un-masculine according to historic conceptions / social constructions of what it is to be Masculine. Overt masculinity once preached disregard of, or apathy towards aesthetic appearance. Vainly obsessing over the minutia of appearance was considered small-minded and distinctly feminine. Today’s ‘masculine’ facebook body builders are bleaching their teeth, removing any trace over body hair, using cosmetics and constantly getting fake tans. The fact that such behaviour is now considered part of, “brazen displays of masculinity” means that our very conception of what is ‘masculine’ has blurred. Zyzz and his crew appeared to be acutely aware of this fact; they accompany many of their posts with the phrase, “no homo.” They certainly borrow a great deal from gay culture, the traditional adversaries of ‘Masculinity,’ but today, it seems the two are easily confused.

Facebook body builders are not only victims of similar forms of pressure traditionally associated with women, but they have in fact begun to shift the boundaries of what is considered masculine. Their form of masculinity can now be criticised for displaying vices that traditional conceptions of femininity are, rightly or wrongly, subject too. Their growing prominence perpetuates the increasing amount of pressure young men face in modern society to change their body that only women were once thought to face. Pressure that is exerted more potently and obviously over social media that in any other area of modern life.

Most men who train at a gym are rational, happy, sane individuals. But some of those who do it just for Facebook likes might be described as vain, small-minded men crippled by self-consciousness and a desire to conform to distorted social norms. I for one am not ‘mirin’.

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References

All discussion of ‘feminine appearance issues’ and all feminist quotations referenced are taken from of cited in ‘Feminism, Issues and Arguments’ by Jennifer Saul, 2003.

Thanks to twocountriesonecistern.blogspot.co.uk for the brilliant forensic examination of the Zyzz story, “Pumping idiocy… the short life and strange death of Zyzz.”

Old Rock Stars

July 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve been on the Internet recently and I’ve noticed that a lot of you have chosen to use it so show the world all of the cool, crazy, wild and adventurous thing you’ve been up to over the summer. I’ve been up to plenty of cool, crazy, wild and adventurous things too; like going to see rod Stewart with my mum.

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I grew up with the man’s music. He’s not a classy and Fleetwood, well know as the Stones or influential as Clapton… but me and my Mum think he’s fucking cool and that’s all that counts.

However, even as a life-long Rod fan, I have to confess I wasn’t expecting much out of the evening. Not because I was questioning my undying love for his tunes, but, because I’ve always thought there’s something quite sad and depressing about rock stars trying their best to live out the dream well into their autumn.

My car decided to break last summer so I took to rolling round in my mum’s 1998 Honda civic. Unsurprisingly, motors that cool don’t have an I-pod connection. However, my mum’s civic did have a copy of, “Rod Stewarts Great American Song Book” in the glove box. It was full of classics like, “Somewhere across the Sea” sung by a mam once described as the, “the greatest living white soul singer,” by James Brown. Sounds good yeah? It was terrible, like, painfully bad. Rods signature, growling voice reduced to a karaoke joke, singing along to whiney, characterless melodies aimed at fitting the blueprint and selling a shit-ton across America.

Because of travesties like this I used to ascribe to the view that if any Rock ‘n’ roll icon gets old enough to record something like a Christmas album, he just can’t be “rock ‘n’ roll” any more – by default.

Entering the NEC to see Rod, My suspicions seemed to be confirmed – before me lay a sea of middle aged, white people in their Sunday best waiting patiently to for the show. In the first half hour the only appropriately drunk woman was ejected for standing up and, well, having a good time I guess.

But things got better when, starting with ‘Maggie may’, he started belting out the classics. I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written and recorded an entirely new album. There were songs about his kids leaving for Uni, his wife and his past. They weren’t cheesy or awkward. They were genuine and heartfelt and the vast room resonated with approval. And when he finished on “Forever young,” I think most of the room believed it.

Cat Marnell knows a thing of two about Rock ‘n’ Roll – she recently proclaimed Pete Docherty, “our last living genuine rock star”. Why Cat? Because he’s the kind of moron that’s so intent on ruining himself, he brings heroin to court when he’s being tried for drug possession?

Just because Rod survived, just because he didn’t make the 27 clubs or end up in a coma, doesn’t make him any less “rock ‘n’ roll” that those who did. When Johnny Rotten appears on butter adverts and Jean Simons is making reality TV shows, they are, by default, no long rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s different. Getting on a bit is one thing, selling out to commercialism and the establishment another.

Yeah, It’s hard to imagine Winehouse or Kurt Cobain ever making it old enough to record a Christmas album. But, if they did, there’s a possibility they could still be rockin’ it, just like Rod.

This is an earlier version of and article later published on VICE –  Photos my own.

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/the-rise-and-fall-of-bassline

Sheffield’s war on Bassline

What happened on the dance floor of Niche on Sydney Street was huge, the club produced the genera of bassline, Sheffield’s greatest musical export of the noughties. In 2005 the club and the sound were peaking. Hundreds of fans would travel from all over the north to hear the world’s best Bassline on its home turf. Then, on a busy night in November that year, ‘Operation Repatriation’ saw the venue raided by over 300 police officers on grounds of a ‘crack house’ closure. Nearly a decade later the details of how UK’s war on drugs, a war supposedly against the gangs controlling drug supply and using clubs for deals, became a war on Bassline, which would go on to be one of the most tightly controlled and policed music scenes in recent times.

Bassline was speed garage’s lairy, northern younger sibling. It emerged from a sound developing across the midlands and was crystallized on a dance floor of Niche that lies hidden down the decaying industrial backwater of Sydney Street. Bassline offered an alternative to garage and grime that northerners could call their own, and the sound continues to feed into the work of ‘Off me Nut’ records, Toddla T and other Sheffield favorites today. ‘The Sound of Bassline’ sold over 100,000 copies and Via Malia and Napa the sound had its moment of international acclaim, (you’ll remember ‘Heartbroken’ by T2 if you went anywhere near a Yates in 2007.)

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Bassline was literally known as ‘Niche music,’ the club and the sound were synonymous. It emerged just before the Internet revolution, so the Club and the Niche tapes defined and controlled the genre. Ultimately the Niche Brand had the potential to compete with the likes of the almighty Gatecrasher (also now absent from the city) as a representative of Sheffield’s unique nightlife, but Bassline was never valued or marketed and finally went the way of Manchester’s Hacienda; brought to its knees by dealers and gangs and banished from the city.

The UK club scene is forever caught in the crossfire of the war on drugs – but the way that South Yorkshire police and the City Council openly declared war on Niche, the Bassline scene and the people involved is unprecedented. The Niche brand and its laurel leaves logo represented a community and movement, not just a business. In 2010, the owner of Niche and godfather of the scene, Steve Baxendale, said of this community, “The Niche is what they talk about, its their underground thing… its part of the Sheffield culture, its a northern identity, its theirs.” But until 2007 “no mention of the dreaded ‘N’ word (Niche) or widely recognized laurel leaves” was allowed, resulting in the brand’s sudden disappearance.

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But most shocking of all is the way the authorities stopped merely policing the problems and became draconian tune selectors. “Due to police restrictions the music policy at Club Vibe was tied down to classics and vocals, with a strict ban on the then infamous 4×4 productions that were taking over,” explained Baxendale. It was all too reminiscent of the indiscriminate legislation passed to tackle illegal raves in the 1980s that specifically described gatherings from which “repetitive beats,” (aka House and Techno) could be heard, as targets.

In a recording that’s been hidden in the hard drive of Sheffield DJ and MC, Alex Deadman, Steve is heard talking frankly and honestly for the first time about the rise and fall of Niche. It’s a side of the story that’s not yet been heard and it paints South Yorkshire Police in a not altogether unfamiliar light. Just as the story of Bassline is tied to the story of Niche, the story of Niche is the story of its owner. Prolific nightlife entrepreneur, fitness fanatic and so-called ‘strong man,’ Baxendale is a character that divided opinion.

But what isn’t disputed is the fact that Baxendale was fighting an uphill struggle against a familiar set of problems induced by prohibition. In the end, it became an all out war against the gangs and dealers congregating in the club. A war Steve and his elite force of bouncers were heavily invested in. On a single night in 1998 two bouncers were stabbed and Steve’s brother, Mr. Michael Baxendale, a martial arts expert and then the manager of Niche was tragically and brutally murdered outside his place of work. But when it all stated, at the birth of Niche, things were quite different.

“We only had two door staff,” Baxendale begins. In 1992, the “underground scene was coming along strong… everyone was sick of the commercial clubs and the military regime that they incorporated. They wanted throbbing underground music and to chill out in peace.” Steve purchased one of Sheffield’s many abandoned cutler warehouse and set up the first Niche, a bare bones, all-night house club, pretty different from the luxury brand it became. “Water was our main product, because obviously the drugs scene were (sic) coming along strong then. Even when we were tight with the dealers you couldn’t stop people coming in that were off their nut… we preferred to have them off their nut, drinking water… no violence, great music, everybody sweating their balls off, shirts off, girls wore bikinis. It was fantastic, it were on fire.” At this point the only ‘problem’ was drug users, not dealers, “there was no violence then because there was no turf wars. Dealers were kept out… all the aggravation is usually around dealers.”

Violence or not, dugs were the enemy and the tory government was playing hardball. A relentless game of cat and mouse developed between his organization and the police, “for about thee years it was continuous raid upon raid… We were up against the authorities from the off. The kids loved being spread-eagled against the wall, starfish searched. They (the police) might find a bit of weed on them and then they’d go away and within an hour we’d be firing up again… They’d pinch your sound system; they’d take your decks… so we always had a spare system knocking about. Straight back in.”

After three years Niche was still drawing huge crowds and Steve had the warehouse was fitted out to meet all the relevant safety regulations. But Niche was already renowned for negative as well as positive reasons; Niche was made legal under only one condition. No alcohol license. And so rather predictably the drug problems continued to escalate. Steve is realistic and about drug use in clubs, “it’s a fact that clubs can’t survive without somebody taking some substance. The alcohol, that’s a drug in it-self.”

Figures of the night - Sydney Street

Figures of the night – Sydney Street

Eventually, “they realized we weren’t going away,” and a license was granted. At this point, Bassline began to emerge, “The DJs asked if they could take the vocals out of the speed garage and the house and just thump up the bass a bit. This led to a change from a predominantly white crowd to a predominantly black crowd. Bassline music was evolving. London never had Bassline music as we had it here, they had the grime. It was our DJs, at the Niche, that created that sound. It went from an underground club with a smaller community to a massive UK wide thing with people coming from all over the country. It became a darker sound with thundering Basslines.”

As this exciting new sound emerged the popularity and desirability of Niche soared, “guys would travel from all over the country because they were hunting down this new music, this bassline.” But the real problems started when gangsters from other cities also started showing up, “they saw us as an easy target. They knew everyone was off their nuts; ready supply and demand going on here. If they could latch onto a percentage of that market, they were going to be well off. So, our war was stopping these dealers coming in, on top of that, making sure the doorman stayed on the straight.

The scene was thriving, but darkness lingered around the fringes. As the effects of drugs and crime began to overwhelm the scene Baxendale’s response would be decisive. His control of the venue was instrumental and his ethos permeated the entire community. “The police were aware we had a battle going on but they didn’t appreciate the amount of work we put into stopping these people coming in, they thought we’d turned a blind eye. They (the dealers) wouldn’t throw their weight around with us because we would up our game plan. We had good lads, hard, working class lads that could handle a fight. The only thing the dealers understood was violence. It was dog eat dog at this time, we had to survive because we had a good club. The law didn’t like us because we had our own rule book which was contrary to theirs.”

Behind the delapodated old Niche

Behind the delapodated old Niche

With such an attitude friction between the police and Niche was inevitable. Baxendale was not above the law. In 2005 the rule of law was restored. The raid cost £680,000 of public money, but Sheffield music fans felt the greatest cost. According to Baxendale the police had argued that the club was “attracting an undesirable clientele, from all areas of the black gang-land wars, who were bringing their bad ways to this city and cementing relationships with people from other major cities.” But in reality, “they raided on the grounds of a ‘crack house’ closure, because (customers) were able to buy drugs in the club, they said… the fact they called the raid ‘repatriation,’ that confirmed my thoughts.”

The doors of this cultural melting pot were slammed shut, Niche on Sydney Street never reopened and the bassline scene never recover. Crucially, none of those involved in the running of the club were ever charged in the operation, despite some inflammatory reporting by the local press about a handful of pills recovered during the raid, the raid was an utter failure. Even the police seem to have recognized this; the inspired officer who orchestrated the vast ‘Operating Repatriation’ was subsequently shipped off to Wales. Without Niche, the gangsters simply had one less place to congregate, but no serious criminals were apprehended that night.

With the club gone the only targets were the Niche brand and the culture and sound it sustained. In following years Baxendale opened ‘Vibe’ on Charter Row, but bassline was off the menu. Other venue owners, the police and fearful local people effectively banned the genre from being played anywhere in the city. The campaign was successful, even those who hated the sound agree its time was cut short. Dj’s such as Jamie Duggan and Shaun ‘Banger’ Scott have said they felt as if they were personally banned from perform anywhere in their home city. This explicit genre specific profiling raises the startling proposition that someone, somewhere in the police or council had a definition of Bassline and was prepared to enforce it.

Unprecedented levels of security kept Vibe comparatively safe, “they forced me into the middle of the city… now they’ve got the big brother on me, they got inside cameras wired up to the police station as a condition, and now they can just sit back and watch what they can’t get a grip off… the drug wars they can’t get a grip of.” By this point Baxendale claims they had a “relationship with the police… co-operation both ways, we’d hand drug dealers over that we caught, and we’d go the distance, we’d go to court… five year sentences were handed down… we’d had had it hard, and we would just like to have an easier ride now.”

In 2009 restrictions were slightly relaxed, and Steve had just expanded the Vibe Premises to create a replica of the old Sydney Street venue, as Baxendale put it, “Niche began to breathe once again in the city that created it.” The most popular drinks were whisky, brandy and cheap champagne. Niche’s second incarnation certainly differed from the club’s roots, but despite everything, it firmly held the same reputation as a mecca for lovers of Bassline. Resident JR said in 2009, “If you go to Embrace, ninety percent of people will be pissed, they go there to get drunk and pull. They come here because it’s a community. They come to Niche because it’s Niche. They wanna be seen in this place, here.” (Embrace is Sheffield’s answer to the Oceana style super clubs that litter the nations high streets.)

But Niche on Charter Row existed as ‘Niche’ for just weeks. Restrictions were now so tight a court had forced the club to use membership cards that took weeks to issue. The business was becoming unviable and Baxendale was fed up, just as before in 2005, “the writing was on the wall, that they weren’t going to have any of it, and so I just up sticks and moved.” Soon after giving the interview Niche was definitively forced out of the city.

The Charter Row venue reopened as the mainstream club Replica, whose most notable run in with the law was when an advert for their student night, ‘Eat my Disco’, featuring speech coming out of a girl’s crotch reading, “you’re going to get laid!” got banned by the ASA because it, “linked alcohol and sexual success”. So, arguably Sheffield’s most well recognized and creatively productive clubbing brand is now invisible in the city, apart from the boarded up shell of the Legendary Sydney street club still bearing the weathered Niche name.

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In the years since Bassline was chased out of town parties of very different nature have been thriving in Sheffield’s cutlery warehouses. The city brings in its fair share of big names to headline the large commercial clubs, but interestingly, prohibition has arguably been a contributing factor in the increasingly underground nature of some dance music scenes. An underground, do-it-yourself subculture that is more prominent in Sheffield than arguably anywhere else in the UK.

Temporary out of town venues like DLS (Dirty Little Secret), Yellow Arch Studios, Dan Sane and Hope Works have taken the lead. Punters don’t buy quite as many drinks, but they’re prepared to spend fifteen quid on a ticket if it’s got the right name on it. They come for the music and the dance floor; they come for the drugs no more than the drinkers go to Embrace for the drinks. DLS is a labyrinth of old workshops in in the old red light district. Its very different from Niche, describes itself as, “the venue portion of a block of art, music and design studios rented out to the cities creative souls.” The crowd is more middle-class and student orientated, but critically, it’s never become associated with the large-scale drug dealing or gang activity that plagued Bassline nights.

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Last year DLS’s closed for a time due to council pressure. It only ever had a temporary license, which explains its forgiving security policy (for punters, not dealers), out of town position and relative autonomy. Other clubs, who have invested heavily for the privilege of being inner-city venues, meeting all relevant guidelines, have long been unimpressed by DLS’s rising success. But despite the pressure, the positive culture nurtured at DLS has won out.

The club was saved when their partners, ‘Party for the People,’ won 10k of lottery funding to expand their community work and the club has since been rebranded as ‘The Night kitchen.’ This time at least, the war on drugs has been tempered and the venue looks set to remain an important nucleus for Sheffield’s surviving creative community. Maybe, finally, the authorities have a better understanding of the reality of a warehouse full of people on pills. Unlike the drunks bulldozing their way up and down the nations high streets every weekend looking for something to drink, fight or fornicate with, or a club full of dealers and gangsters, there’s actually very little chance of trouble occurring at such nights. If the dealers stay away, the venue stays safe.

It’s hard to say what nightlife in the UK would look like if drugs were decriminalized in the form already described in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and to say if Niche would have been saved, but drugs are now more popular, numerous and dangerous than ever. For want of a better word, drugs are an industry, a dangerous and volatile industry that is given freely to a criminal underworld to run and to profit from. It’s an industry where consumers can become addicted, controlled and extorted. An industry whose illegality and profitability often attracts and aligns with youth cultures keen to be portrayed as both rebellious and affluent – It follows as inevitable that the boundaries between the criminal and sinister drug industry and the creative and hedonistic world of music and nightlife should become blurred. And in the case of Bassline, these two worlds became too blurred, with devastating effects for the latter.

Momentum has shifted. In the last two years the mainstream media has begun to have an honest discussion about drug policy. The drug war has failed, producing countries are on their knees and the criminal underworld that runs the industry has continued to boom. But, without prohibition, is it morally acceptable to allow people to take drugs for the sake of their health and our society? There is far from a satisfactory answer to this second question.

Yet the Niche story and the relationship between dance music, nightlife, drugs and criminality in Sheffield demonstrates that the harm being caused by prohibition, and it should serve as further impetus for us to now ask if decriminalization and regulation could protect our citizens, culture and society better than the war on drugs. Later on this year a Documentary on the rise and fall of Niche is scheduled for release. It includes words from Baxendale, who the film team tracked down in Spain, and promises to shed light on the many murky aspects of this story.

It’s too late to save bassline, but hopefully the tragic story of Niche will serve as a warning for the future. It’s time the UK took steps to protect is greatest cultural export on the past century and took the drugs market out of the hand of criminals only interested in profits and power. The existing prohibition laws continue to sustain the criminals who harm Sheffield’s nightlife and endanger its music fans. Decriminalisation is the alternative. An alternative that is increasingly worthy of public debate.

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Headphone Bling

July 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

Headphone Hype

‘Owning an expensive pair of headphones may make you look like a DJ, but they don’t miraculous make you into a DJ.’

If you’ve left the house this decade you might have noticed the rise in teenagers and students cat-walking across Britain’s high streets, campuses and public transport in huge and often flamboyant headphones. Massive over-ear headphones have become the essential fashion accessory of our generation, making them big, big business.

1000x500px-LL-06f16da8_tumblr_kzhq0bDHCU1qzzhzdo1_500_largeDr Dre just sold Beats to Apple, apparently making him the, “first billionaire in hip-hop.” Most of annalists ranting about the eye watering sale price of beats put the franchises’ success down to some crafty and underhand advertised. Free pairs were sent to athletes at the Olympics [LINK] and everyone from Wayne Rooney to Justin Bieber was pictured wearing them. Whatever you’re opinion of such figure, I think it’s safe to say they’re not the sorts of people you should be taking advice of musical nature from.

The most annoying thing about the headphone craze is that loads of people now seem to believe that parading massive expensive headphones is actually a marker of anyone who knows about good music. Fortunately this isn’t the case. Today, more than ever, they’re just fashion accessories. Owning an expensive pair of headphones may make you look like a DJ, but they don’t miraculous make you into a DJ.

From the small time promoter who spent half his loan on a pair of Sennheisers, to the fifteen year old sporting a fake pair of Beats his mum got him at market so he would be down with the latest playground craze, my worry is the same. Headpones are now seldom worn for their sonic virtues but as lavish bits of jewellery and little more.

Despite this, last week I got in on the act and purchased my first pair of half-decent headphones. They’re great. I can really appreciate how they transform a mundane walk to the shops by encasing your ears in a bubble of crisp sound, allowing you to shut off from your awful surroundings and enjoy whatever new-fangled music you happen to think is cool at the time.

Their virtues aside, I still think it’s pretty clear that this trend is getting out of hand. It’s begging to remind me of when people first went mad for mobile phones in the late 90s; some people went as far as to wear them around their neck as some sort of technological medallion worth upwards of £150.

reallybigheadphonesI frequently seen people wearing them perched on the back of their heads like some sort of halo or Indian headdress, and there’s a few of my friends who I literally can’t remember last seeing without their treasured headphones chained around their neck.

Its great that more people are enjoying good sound quality – but those who adorn themselves with the flashiest pair they could find on amazon like the Mr. T of Music taste just to impress passersby, are completely missing the point. And if they also happen to also be one of the millions who also stroll around all day staring into a smart phone, their technology addiction is probably becoming debilitatingly anti-social.