Behind the Cover Art
Photo Credit: Britton Mori
Much like books open doors to new worlds for readers, this issue explores many new ideas and introduces some of our newest writers.
Negging: From Shakespeare to The Streets
Freya Miller looks into the idea of ‘negging.’ She explores this widely unsuccessful flirting technique by looking into Shakespeare’s plays and The Streets’ ‘Fit But You Know It.’
Image: Bookstr, DIYMag, 9Gag
A term which rose to fame following the most recent season of Love Island, ‘negging’ is a shallow and widely unsuccessful flirting technique that consists of a compliment and an insult delivered in the same few sentences. Disguised as flattery, so-called ‘pickup artists’ aim to appear flirtatious while degrading the confidence of their ‘target’. It’s safe to say that the victims of this technique are mostly women, and transparent attempts to ‘neg’ are rife across social media, dating apps, and nightclubs.
However, this isn’t an article meant to criticise its subjects. In the context of The Streets’ jaunty song ‘Fit But you Know it’ and Shakespeare’s comedies, we might look on their efforts more
favourably. The fictionalisation of this type of flirting across
centuries serves a comedic purpose and when taken out of its
more sinister context, makes a comment on satirised relationships.
You have to allow Mike Skinner, frontman of The Streets, a little
sympathy when listening to the 2004 hit ‘Fit but You Know It’ in
2022. It tells the story of a classic 00’s lad’s holiday, a rowdy,
alcohol-fuelled night which ends in the chippy. He spots a
woman he likes the look of and starts up a conversation. As
Skinner sings, the speaker is ‘mugged off on display’-- this
woman isn’t the least bit interested in him. The dynamic here is
recogniseable now for its toxicity, but in 2004 dating was a
completely different world.
The ‘neg’ count in the first verse stands at three. At least in the above example, Zack only puts this woman down once. Firstly, he states she’s ‘about an eight or a nine’ but reassures her that she might have the chance to be a nine and a half ‘in 4 beers time’. He continues by complimenting her shirt, before commenting that she has a bit too much fake tan on. Finally, we arrive at the titular statement, ‘You’re fit, but my gosh don’t you know it!’. A barrage of compliments and insults, which, by the end of the song aren’t even successful.
In 2004, we imagine Skinner may have written this to critique the sort of woman that would flirt with and then proceed to ignore a potential date. Reading in 2022, I think Skinner appears to be a bit awestruck, but, wanting to maintain a cool exterior, fumbles in his attempts and appears endearingly naive.
We see similarly naive young lovers in Shakespeare’s plays, however many of them don’t choose to actively insult their beloved. However, in comedies particularly, Shakespeare sustains playful commentary on gender relationships. Many of the following examples highlight elements of the realistic, but far-from-ideal woman, her character, sexuality and body are all topics of discussion. Similarly, The Streets comment on these same elements, and judge them according to their ideal woman.
In All's Well that Ends Well, Lafeu says to the King “this woman’s an easy glove, my lord, she goes off and on at pleasure.” Her comparison to a glove is vaguely sexual, reinforced by the second part of the quote. You could argue that this sexual contextualisation of women is seen also in Fit but you know it. In The Comedy of Errors, a woman is described as being “No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe; I could find countries in her.”, a sarcastic description which judges body shape against the ideal.
The Shakespeare play which most acutely employs negging, though, is The Taming of the Shrew. Broadly, it is about a man wearing down and manipulating a woman, who, once fiery and outspoken, becomes the ideal timid, submissive wife. Petruchio does ‘neg’ Kate throughout the play, and one of the most identifiable examples is this one:
“You lie, in faith; for you are call'd plain Kate, And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate.”
Here Kate’s epithets oscillate between plain and curst, to bonny, prettiest and super-dainty, the latter of which are qualities which she ends up fulfilling. It is structured similarly to Mike Skinner’s approach in the opening verse of 'Fit but You Know It'. What is interesting to me is how both women are given a sort of power. In Shrew, the ending of the play is ambiguous and some argue Kate is playing along for her own advancement. In The Streets’ song, the object of Skinner’s affections is not the least interested in, or bothered by, his unvoiced comments.
In the work of both Shakespeare, and Skinner this aspect of flirting is taken lightly, used for comedic effect and largely is successful as such. And truly, do we not read examples today and use them for comedy similarly?
Yada Yada Yada: The Observational Humor and Defamiliarization of Seinfeld
The realization that the habits that you have and the things you do everyday don't have meaning should be upsetting, so why is that not always the case? Ellie Stewart examines the observational humor of Seinfeld and how structure is used to combat absurdity.
We all know the feeling, you're walking a path that you take everyday to get to class and suddenly the strangeness of the tree to your left strikes you. It suddenly becomes clear that the tree is not just a tree but an organism thousands upon thousands of years in the making. What was once a mere tree is now a strange and ancient being, and the sheer scope of what a tree is has suddenly struck you. You are violently aware of its shape and scale, the branches arching over your head and the roots entangled under your feet. What you once thought of as a tree has become removed from what a tree really is, and thus has become unsettling and strange. These moments of a removed strangeness perforate our lives in all aspects, sometimes directed at the world around us, or sometimes at ourselves. In philosophical theories surrounding the defamiliarization of the familiar, a person becomes distanced from something that was once mundane and normal. This can often be an uncomfortable experience, as it exposes the fact that the things that form our reality are liable to shift, or more exactly, the way we view our reality is not entirely accurate to reality itself. The tree has always been the version that we see in our distanced state, however, whether for practicality or just simplicity’s sake, we have stopped viewing it as such. When this distanced perspective is directed at the self it can become even more disturbing, as we are separated from our bodies, our actions, and our thoughts. Our rituals and societal pressures gain a hollow quality as their cultural significance fades and we are left with the strangeness of the constructions of meanings that we have made.
This sort of detachment and distancing from a once common object is not necessarily a bad thing however, and in some cases people can find beauty or even comfort in seeing something from a removed perspective. The tree defamiliarized can be once again recognized for its beauty and the incredible feat of evolution that it represents. This sort of positive defamiliarization has also shown itself in comedy, earning the name of “observational comedy”, where the comedian makes note of a trait or custom from a distanced perspective, emphasizing the strangeness of it. The question arises however, as to what differentiates this positive defamiliarization from the negative experience, what makes observational comedy funny rather than terrifying?
The answer to this question, I think, lies in how the content is presented. Take for instance the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and his show, aptly named Seinfeld. The show manages to avoid the potential terror of acute self-examination by using a humor in a frame narration and a notably structured story. Each episode begins with a segment of a standup comedy show, Seinfeld tells a couple of jokes that are somewhat related to the story content of the show, the story then plays, and we are closed out with another segment of the standup show, this time more directly related to the story. This creates a sort of frame narration that allows the viewer to identify what Seinfeld is referring to in the comedy sections. The story is presented as a point of reference for the audience, and Seinfeld is not just making comedic observations about people’s behavior, but is rather making observations which are supported by stories of his own. Stories which are generally confined to about 20 minutes and are neatly bound by the frame of the comedy segments. The observation that is made is tied necessarily to the confined story that it refers to, and the viewer is permitted to encounter the strangeness of behavior within its bounds. For example, in the episode entitled “The Parking Garage”, we begin with a segment about the complexity of mall navigation, this then leads us into the main story, which follows the group as they struggle to find their car in a parking garage, the narrative then concluding with a segment referencing the storyline about the difficulty of finding cars in garages. The viewer is introduced to the oddity of how we have structured car garages through the comedy show, and we have the sense that the story is a recounting of an event that happened. This thus creates a safer environment to encounter a distanced observation, in the memory of another.
The story itself is an important factor in the creation of a safe space to view the absurdity of the ordinary. Outside of the frame narration, the stories are all very constructed, they have overly eccentric characters, there are far too many coincidences, and everything always seems to line up perfectly for the most entertaining outcome for the characters. Everything that happens in the stories is contrived; they do not have the feeling of real life and are instead a perfected and humorous version of real life. They are a version of reality that is safe and predictable. In this reality, within these stories with their perfectly crafted arcs, we are able to confront the strangeness of our own actions without needing to identify what that would mean for our behavior in the real world. One episode that encapsulates this is “The Limo”, in which Jerry and George get into a limo at the airport that was meant for someone else, and they pretend to be him without knowing that he was actually a white supremesist and had a rather dangerous following. This is something that very clearly would not happen in real life (hopefully). Now, while some of the episodes are much more mundane, episodes like this one highlight the constructed nature of the story for the benefit of the viewer. This world is notably false, fabricated for comedic value, and thus, when Seinfeld references back to the story through observational humor at the end of the show, it is humor that is felt and not uneasiness.
I believe that it is these structures and contexts that allow the observational humor of Seinfeld to be amusing rather than unsettling. We are able to laugh because, while we can relate, and may have experienced the things that Seinfeld refers to in his comedy segments, they and stories that accompany them create a framework, within which ideas can be explored in ways that would be more difficult in a more realistic context. This framework and the observational comedy that accompanies it is referenced in the show itself, as in the episode “The Pitch” when Jerry and George pitch a show to NBC that they say is about nothing, referring to the mundane and everyday. In this show we are shown the details of life that we often overlook, however due to its structure and humor, we are permitted to experience defamiliarization, not as uncomfortable, but as cause for laughter.
BookTok: The Reading Revolution
Fiona McNevin dives into the most wholesome corner of the Internet, BookTok, and takes an in depth look at how the app is revolutionising the literary world for readers and publishers alike.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s March 2020, and I’m sat at home, tired of scrolling through Instagram and Netflix, and looking for something to entertain me through the long hours in lockdown. Like many people during the pandemic, my boredom led me to do what I had sworn I would never succumb to – download TikTok. Yes, dear reader, I gave in. After endless days of scrolling through popular dance trends and the classic oversharer, I came across a different kind of video, something charmingly referred to as BookTok. This was a whole new corner of the app to me and it was gaining popularity fast; I immediately bought into the aesthetically pleasing and often hilarious videos created by booklovers for booklovers. But what is BookTok and what effect is it having on the literary and publishing world?
The #BookTok hashtag has racked up a whopping 37.5 billion views and counting, and it’s changing the industry with every new video. BookTok is essentially a giant international book club where users review and discuss novels through the medium of short snappy videos often consisting of witty titles or dreamy aesthetics. Their videos are designed to welcome you into the reading community and introduce novels to inspire you to start reading. TikTok users are reshaping attitudes to reading, especially amongst the younger generations, who make up the majority of those running BookTok accounts.
Not only has the app seen the engagement with this side of TikTok grow at a consistently steady pace, but there are real life results for authors and publishing houses as well. Adam Silvera’s 2017 novel They Both Die At The End gained huge popularity on the platform last year, and sales were boosted to the extent that over half of the novel’s total sales were from 2021 alone. We are in the midst of a reading revolution; the literary publicity and marketing worlds are running to keep up in the hope that one of their novels will be the next to go viral and experience a boost in sales. The trend is taking off, and Booktokers are now getting sent books by both authors and publishers.
The British publishing house Bloomsbury attributes their record sales numbers to the engaging and exciting environment that BookTok has created for young people regarding reading and reviewing novels. Barnes & Noble, an American bookseller is capitalising on the trend, and has created displays and collections specifically dedicated to books trending under the BookTok hashtag.
Booktokers have completely reshaped how to advertise novels, with the users becoming progressively more creative as the hashtag grows. Some choose to do quick fire reviews in 30 seconds, or group their favourite novels under attention-piquing titles such as ‘Books that will make you sob at 3am’. I’ve even seen users start the video in the style of a confessional and intimate vlog detailing their lives, enticing curious viewers who then learn that the creator is acting as a character from the novel they are recommending to you, in order to creatively explain the plot!
The online community has become a kind of sanctuary for creators and viewers, who feel connected and understood by each other, united in their common love for reading. It is no coincidence that it took off during the pandemic, with many of the popular creators starting their accounts during lockdown. Reading has always been about escapism, and the ability to leave reality and travel around the world with one flick of a page or tap on a Kindle. When Coronavirus hit, many of us felt bored and trapped and alone, and BookTok became a wholesome corner of the Internet where many of us could escape the real world for a little while. And it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon either. As TikTok continues to grow in popularity, and currently boasts 1 billion users, we are guaranteed to see more BookTok users pop up, and maybe a wild new reading revolution.
The BookTok creators are predominantly young women, although the community is becoming increasingly diverse as videos are cropping up on more user’s For You pages, which sees hundreds of fresh content loaded every day for users to scroll through and share with each other. Creators such as @kateslibrary, @aymansbooks and @alifeofliterature have hundreds of thousands of followers and consistently produce curated bookworm content for their avid fans. The community has allowed book lovers to find specific recommendations, such as novels with queer characters written by LGBTQ+ authors, or fantasy romance novels involving a female heroine. The creators also don’t hold back from expressing their emotions on camera – one of BookTok’s most viral novels, A Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, saw a trend where users recorded themselves reading it excitedly on the day of purchase, and then sobbing dramatically as they finished it whilst recording.
We may not know what the next title to make it big on TikTok will be, but there is no doubt that the world’s biggest online book club is here to stay. And of course, if you’re looking for some book recommendations, you know where to go!
The Sick Child: Edvard Munch’s Unsung Masterpiece
Before he created The Scream, Munch created this moving painting with roots in childhood memories. Caroline Nicholson discusses the exclusiveness of The Sick Child and how we can look at Munch’s much less known masterpiece.
For many of us, the name Edvard Munch immediately conjures up the nightmarish and surreal painting The Scream. While The Scream is certainly his most recognizable painting, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s gift of being able to create emotionally intense, moving works of art came into full bloom years before this painting was completed. This gift was first seen by the public in 1886, with the exhibition of Munch’s first rendition of the painting The Sick Child. The imagery in The Sick Child lacks the dynamism of The Scream, namely the central eye-catching figure. Nevertheless, this scene of a dying young girl has an even greater emotional impact for those who see it.
One of the reasons why The Sick Child is so moving is because its origins can be found within the artist’s childhood. When Munch was a boy, both his mother and his older sister Sophie died of tuberculosis. Sophie is believed to have only been fifteen years old at the time of her death. As such, the young girl in the painting has often been assumed to be Sophie. Even if the painting does not explicitly depict Sophie, the feelings and ideas explored in it no doubt can be traced back to the memory of these two great losses. This idea seems to be confirmed by the fact that Munch painted this image six different times across the course of his career. While Munch did change certain elements of the image in his different representations of it—his 1896 version, for example, uses brighter colors—the main scene always remains unchanged. The unchanging nature of the main scene indicates that it deeply resonated with the artist–and that he personally felt the need to explore it again and again.
But just how does Munch accomplish his goal of conveying an intensely emotional scene in The Sick Child? One of the most noticeable ways is through the postures of the figures, which, as stated above, remain unchanged in the different renditions of the painting he created. The older woman, who serves a parental role in the image, lowers her head in grief and emotional distress. She clasps the girl’s hand–as if not wanting to surrender her to death. The girl, on the other hand, looks passively at this mother figure–knowing that there is nothing that can be done. The dynamic Munch illustrates between the two figures captures an idea viewers of the painting may have experienced in their own lives: the helplessness of a parent watching his or her child suffer. Indeed, the maternal figure in the painting seems to be engulfed in feelings of helplessness, wanting to save the girl from suffering and death and knowing that she cannot. The girl is helpless as well, but seems to have accepted her fate, spending her final moments in a state of calmness and compassion for the older woman.
Munch accomplishes his goal with The Sick Child through what he shows the viewer, but also through what he chooses not to show. It is possible to see specific items in the background, such as a chest next to the bed and a half-finished glass. In his initial 1886 version of the painting, however, the room as a whole seems foggy. Munch’s color choices make the room feel sharper in later renditions. What remains constant, however, is that deep recesses in the room seem to fade into shadow, naturally drawing the viewer’s eye to the tragic scene in the center of the painting. Similar to The Scream in this way, The Sick Child’s ephemeral setting heightens the central drama and thus increases the painting’s emotional impact.
It seems unfortunate that amongst Edvard Munch’s paintings, The Sick Child has been overshadowed by The Scream in terms of popularity. Nevertheless, this obscurity can in fact be seen as a positive thing. Given the subject matter and tone of The Sick Child, pop culture renderings or emojis would be in extremely poor taste. Those attempts that have been made at highlighting it, such as its appearance on a Norwegian postage stamp in honor of the artist’s birthday, seem to step dangerously close to this line. Let us hope that for the foreseeable future, this beautiful and deeply moving work of art will receive the respect it is due, and avoid the commercialization that has in many ways lessened the impact of The Scream.
Jane Austen is Funny
Jane Austen is funny. So why, despite all the many adaptations of her work on screen, might that have escaped you? Laura Bennie explores how this comedy magic has been lost and the hope to be found in more recent adaptations.
Image: Nerd Reactor
When people want to start reading classics, I always suggest they start with Jane Austen. I do love her myself—although in truth, I am much more of a Brontë girl. And, yes, this is partly due to her writing style being so accessible in comparison to say Dickens or Thomas Hardy. But it is also because Jane Austen’s novels are simply funny. Out and out, laugh-out-loud funny.
Austen’s novels are comedies in two senses. First in the traditional, literary sense. The structure of her novels mimic Shakesperian comedies: there are misunderstandings throughout, and at the end everybody gets married. Anyone who’s seen a Shakespearean comedy can tell you that just because something is ‘technically’ a comedy, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily funny. Tragic things happen in comedies and conversely there is much levity to be found in tragedies. But Jane Austen does not just write comedy in the technical sense, what she writes is funny too. At their core, Austen novels are cutting satires of Regency life. For the most part, her heroines are women dissatisfied with something in their lives, the limits of the private world that women inhabited are dissected with Austen’s trademark wit. You only need to spend a little time with Lizzie, Anne or Elinor to know how funny Austen really is.
Jane Austen’s work demands to be translated on screen. Her style—heavy in dialogue and generally concerned with character over plot—works so well whether adapted faithfully and set in the time in which they were written, or transported to another time and location all together, like Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice or the excellent teen comedy Clueless.
Austen’s most frequently adapted novel, Pride and Prejudice, is also one of her funniest—although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching it on screen. Now, there is great debate over which adaptation of reigns supreme. The BBC’s (1995) television series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is consistently praised for its faithful depiction of Austen’s original text (excluding, of course, the addition of the famous lake scene). On the other hand, Joe Wright’s (2005) film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden is touted for its strength as a romance. Clearly, both these adaptations have their strengths, but neither fully commit to their comedy. It’s not missing entirely, for who can forget ‘a most exemplary vegetable’, but it very much takes a back seat in both adaptations to make room for plenty of brooding and infuriating miscommunication.
However, when we are discussing which adaptation of Pride and Prejudice best hits Austen’s comedic beats, we must consider the much derided Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. With the exception of the inclusion of zombies (a phrase that is doing a lot of heavy lifting, I’m aware), the film is actually a fairly faithful representation of the original. This is possibly because Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is based on a book– aside from just Pride and Prejudice, of course. Seth Grahame-Smith, of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter fame, originated the Austen-meets-the-undead idea and in doing so managed to open the door for Austen’s real comedic genius to shine on screen. Setting the world of Pride and Prejudice against something as absurd as the zombie apocalypse manages to detach the story from any misconceptions of pretentious seriousness that classic novels often carry. The hilarity of Lizzie and Darcy’s awkward romance, Jane’s convenient illness, and Matt Smith’s Mr Collins all shine in this film—moments that are pure Austen comedy.
Despite many excellent attempts, no Austen adaptation has really been able to capture the funny side of Austen without straying too far from the original text. Or that was true until recently. Enter Emma in 2020, the most recent addition to the Austen canon.
Emma Woodhouse was never intended to be a likeable heroine, far from Lizzie Bennet or Marianne Dashwood. Austen is often quoted as saying, in reference to Emma, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.' This is because, frankly, no one likes a heroine who’s perfect. Unlike Austen’s other leading ladies, Emma is undeniably beautiful, she doesn’t struggle with money, and she is not short for marriage prospects. Emma doesn’t have to worry about getting married to someone that she doesn’t like just to survive, as she has enough money to be self-sufficient and a father that would rather she didn’t leave home. So what does Emma do with all this time, money and relative freedom on her hands? Well, essentially she manipulates people. Sure, she means well, but her matchmaking is frowned upon for good reason—she interferes with limited knowledge and no experience of love herself and creates unnecessary misunderstandings, leaving the broken pieces for others to fix. So how do you take a character like this and make her bearable? You push her behaviour to comedic extremes.
Emma (2020) does what no other Austen adaptation has managed to achieve up to this point. It combines the intense romance (Taylor-Joy and Flynn’s chemistry is equal to Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden, if not greater) with faithfulness to the setting and era of the original text and the humour that so many other films forget to add in. With this film, Autumn de Wilde has created something delightfully weird, and brought Emma’s world to life in exquisite beauty. These characters feel lifted right from the pages of Austen’s novel; de Wilde doesn’t tone them down, doesn’t dilute Emma to make her more palatable, and, as such, manages to keep the comedy.
The comedic relief characters in this film are truly funny, not awkward or distracting. Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse was inspired casting, and he is all the neurotic, controlling, silly parently figure that has been missing from other Austen adaptaions. Casting Miranda Hart, an actress known for her comedy, as Miss Bates brings real levity to Austen’s staple ‘pitiable spinster character’. Her more ridiculous moments (see: ‘Mother, you must sample the tart!’) endear her to us, and only add to the pathos at Box Hill, when Emma misguidedly insults her and learns a hard earned lesson about kindness and humility. But the real star player here is Josh O’Connor’s Mr Elton, just as absurd and slimy as Austen intended and an easy rival for Tom Hollander’s Mr Collins. Emma (2020) doesn’t take itself too seriously, the cinematography is beautiful, the costumes fantastic and the performances first rate, but it never forgets that it is a comedy at heart, not just a solemn period piece. This is what makes it so successful.
With any luck, we will never stop seeing fresh takes on Austen’s genius on our screens. There is space for romance and drama in this, sure, but sometimes the more serious turns leave them feeling a little bit soulless and devoid of Austen’s voice. We need more films that don’t let us forget the fundamental truth: Jane Austen is funny.
Picking up the Pieces of Disco, Funk, and Soul
Dust off your dancing shoes because disco, funk, and soul are on the rise. In this article, Emily Garrow evaluates the development of music infused with these genres over the last few years and how the pandemic may have altered what listeners crave.
Image: 'Smokin Out The Window' [Official Music Video]
It was the late noughties when I’d discovered that most parents don’t blast Chic through their car speakers when picking up their kids from after school clubs. Disco, funk, and soul had been an ever-present feature of my household; I couldn’t understand that the majority of my friends hadn’t been introduced to it or were simply uninterested. I soon learned what was popular to listen to at that time (at least in my school) leaned more towards what the latest X-Factor contestants sang rather than Kool & The Gang.
Much to my joy, there appears to be a shift towards these styles occurring right now. I have a fairly eclectic taste in music, but I can’t deny that I was pleased to hear snippets of funky riffs, along with brass and string sections, slowly filtering their way into the charts.
Back in October 2019, Dua Lipa released the single ‘Don’t Start Now’ followed by the album Future Nostalgia in March 2020. In an interview for Apple Music in December 2019, Lipa stated that the album is, ‘nostalgic, it has a disco influence to it’. The echoes of disco are clear across the album (but particularly in ‘Levitating’ and ‘Break My Heart’) with strong basslines, syncopation, synths and, on occasion, strings. Even the name ‘Future Nostalgia’ brings in an aspect of returning to the past but with a twist, as Lipa touched on in a conversation with Variety in 2020. In the same meeting, Lipa pointed to “artists like Jamiroquai, Moloko, Blondie and Prince” as “childhood inspirations” for the music. The single ‘Future Nostalgia’ definitely has an ambience of Jamiroquai’s visionary and galactic take on funk.
Another addition to this recent disco-motivated era is ‘The Feels’ by K-pop group TWICE in 2021. ‘The Feels’ immediately hooks audiences with its prominent bass line and strong disco quality; the intermittent claps advancing this approach even further. The fast-paced, ever-changing format together with the repeated bridges and chorus creates a song that will immediately get stuck in your head, perhaps never finding its way out . When interviewed by Euphoria. in November 2021, TWICE member Chaeyoung commented that they were “trying new concepts for each comeback”. Could one of these “concepts” be related to disco? With ‘The Feels’, that definitely feels like a possibility.
But one of the key players in this movement has to be Silk Sonic. Consisting of artists Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic has become notably popular on TikTok with the songs ‘Leave The Door Open’ and ‘Smokin Out The Window’. Their 2021 album An Evening with Silk Sonic is reminiscent of 70s and 80s funk and soul music. From fashion, music video sets, and vocal embellishments, Silk Sonic covers it all. Mars’s effortlessly smooth singing blended with .Paak’s huskier vocals creates enough contrast to keep you listening and leaves room for some great harmonies. The lyrics themselves are witty and, at times, humorous, which is likely why people on TikTok were drawn to them. I’ll admit that when I first listened to the album I was so taken by the melodies that I didn’t even think about what they were saying; it came as a surprise upon further listening. The album has an array of styles pulling from disco, funk, and soul, and I often found myself comparing the songs to music that I already knew. The song ‘Skate’ in particular makes me think of Rose Royce’s ‘Car Wash’ crossed with Earth, Wind, & Fire and The Emotions’ ‘Boogie Wonderland’. The strings really add to the 70s mood and the fluidity in general, and you might feel as if you are roller skating along with them.
Compared to the previous artists I’ve mentioned, Silk Sonic are the most pronounced with their funk and soul approach to their music. In an interview with The Breakfast Club in March 2021, Mars lists Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown as some of the many inspirations for their style. On top of that, Bootsy Collins, a funk musician and singer (previously James Brown’s bass player), is a recurring feature throughout the album. Collins’ presence develops the retrospective flavour of the album overall and creates a firmer link to the music Silk Sonic honours.
An Evening with Silk Sonic, Future Nostalgia, and ‘The Feels’ are only a few of the surfacing albums and songs that have an element of disco, funk or soul to them. Consider ‘Kiss Me More’ by Doja Cat ft. SZA or ‘Dynamite’ by BTS. I could go on. The increase of music being produced which is influenced by these musical traditions has led me to wonder how the pandemic impacted the consumption of music. Music was already a stable companion throughout many people’s lives, whether it was making a long journey much more bearable or pushing them through those last three hundred words of an essay before an impending deadline. Life continually proves to be stressful, especially with Covid making unlimited reprises, the global warming crisis, and trying to keep up with politics. In my (biased) opinion, disco and funk are the ideal withdrawal for when you’re feeling disheartened. The upbeat and lighthearted rhythms can momentarily release you from the alarming events of the past months and years. With a dance in your step and a song in your ear, all worries melt away until you’re left with a puddle of positive vibes. Soul can be great for when you want to be engrossed by the emotion expressed by the artists. You can become so involved with the singer’s narrative that you forget what was worrying you, at least for a short while.
In a further interview discussing Future Nostalgia for Apple Music in February 2021, Dua Lipa explained that she “wanted it to serve as a form of escapism” which is exactly what I think these emerging jigsaw genres achieve. There is an aspect of comfort to mixing disco, funk, and soul with contemporary pop because it brings in stylistic components which we know well and changes them up. Most of us have probably had enough surprises for now, and this music allows for innovation while providing ease in the familiarity.
If you’ve never listened to disco, funk, or soul music (or you haven’t liked it in the past) then I encourage you to give this new generation of artists a try. It might be what you didn’t realise you were needing right now. So grab your stereos, headphones, and record players and groove your way into 2022. I know I am.
Judging Books by Their Covers
Ava Benbow studies the art of book covers and what they need to communicate to the viewer, as well as the value the add to the readers.
Images: GoodReads; Simon and Schuster
I read a fair number of books. If I don’t have a busy week, I might get through three. Even when I’m busy, I’ll probably spend breaks between schoolwork getting through a chapter or two. As a consequence of keeping up this habit, I consider myself pretty skilled at flipping through library books to find the ones I’ll like. Usually, I can thin down a hundred books to five potential next reads, and I almost always like the ones I pick. There’s something intuitive about the whole process, quite quickly I will be able to tell what kind of book it is and if I’d like it. I’d like to take credit for this, maybe cite some enhanced perception or literary knack, but really it is the work of cover designers.
Iconic cover designs, like those from A Clockwork Orange to The Handmaid’s Tale, tend to stick with us. These covers are interesting and engaging pieces of art, but they also are a fascinating use of visual shorthand. Often when we think of visual shorthand, we think of movies一 like a tumbleweed setting the stage for a Western, or a thunderstorm tapping into our sense of suspense in a matter of seconds. Short scenes that are packed with information, most of which we absorb without really thinking about it. But I think that cover design is an interesting way to look at effective visual shorthand.
Book covers are a study of limitations in art. In most cases, they must contain a legible title and author name in a small space. Good cover design makes every inch of space count, relying on a variety of techniques to condense the themes and ideas of hundreds of pages into a small canvas. An effective cover can prime the reader for the experience they are going to have with a book, subtly aligning their expectations and making sure that they will pick up a book when they are in the right mood. The haunting eyes on The Great Gatsby are foreboding and signify darker themes, whether you have read the book or not and understand the reference. And the unsettling eye of 1984 scared me as a kid much before I could actually understand what a dystopia was.
The covers of 1984 and The Great Gatsby (above) are two poignant examples of effective visual storytelling. Part of this is by similarity within genre. The dark, moody landscapes of mysteries and the color blocked whimsical designs of romances are somewhat ubiquitous. By this point, it is almost a given that a cover featuring a hooded figure in a misty landscape will be a fantasy adventure and that those saturated with reds and blacks might be riding the wave of supernatural romance which emerged in the 2010s. These tropes feel intuitive at this point, which makes them effective. There is a strong enough association that the covers don’t need to waste space showing basic genre information.
But within genre tropes, there is still plenty that covers have to do. There are thousands and thousands of books published each year, so a good cover has to differentiate a book as the one that you want to spend your limited time reading. Furthermore, books need to be distinct from each other so that when you pick up a book, it isn’t actually a similar looking book with a completely different plot. Doing this is where I think the true art comes in. To create something eye-catching that you want to know the full story behind, the art has to be inventive and creative. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the top-rated books of the year consistently have iconic cover designs. Even before word of mouth boosts their sales, they are caught in the minds of the casual bookstore viewer. In fact, a book design company used quantifiable methods to show the importance of cover design to sales. Identical advertisements were used, but with two different covers. Having a cover that conveyed more genre information and used unique design styles increased the click throughs on all 4 covers that they redesigned. The cover redesign that boosted advertisement engagement the most utilized trends in cover design, taking a mystery and making it look less like a romance novel. This aligned the people who were drawn to the cover with the people who would be interested in the book material.
If you look up the top books of 2021, you will find a vast array of artistic styles. Photographs, collage, illustration, abstraction, colors, seemingly everything is at play. And it makes sense—books have to look different because books are different. And when I look at those books which have made their way up to the coveted top spots of the year, I want to learn more about my favorites. Maybe that’s the combination of being an art nerd and a book nerd, but I don’t think that’s all it is.
To understand a book through an artistic conduit is a really unique way to glean the essence of a book without spoiling it. Often covers show information that you wouldn’t want included in a jacket summary, but they show in a way distinct to how you will experience it reading. It gives a sort of preview without taking away from the experience, sometimes even enriching it. The separation between visual and literary interpretations allows for a freedom in cover design that is so beautiful to see unfold.