McFly – guitarist and singer Danny Jones, guitarist and singer Tom Fletcher, bassist and singer Dougie Poynter, and drummer Harry Judd – had seven number ones in the UK. With their 2004 debut Room on the 3rd Floor, they became the youngest band to ever have a number one album, a title previously held by the Beatles. And I hated them. I hated them in the shallowest way imaginable. I was a Kerrang! kid, dressed in black, listening to pop punk and emo and nu-metal. Genres were much more stratified then, and I thought pop music was more or less inherently suspect. I thought McFly were a boy band, so I turned my nose up at them on principle.
I was a dumb kid, but I wasn’t alone. “[A]ll the usual credibility-gap closers – numerous Beatlesque albums, gigging at the Barfly, releasing on an indie label – still haven’t quite shifted the perception of McFly as Busted Club Juniors,” Iain Moffatt wrote for the BBC in 2010. McFly were a punching bag, more often than not: dissing McFly was a shorthand to credibility. Kasabian went after them, calling them a “pop band for kids”. An extremely young Daniel Radcliffe went after them, lamenting that the kids at his school like McFly instead of The Libertines. Someone who came fifth on RTÉ’s talent show You’re A Star in 2005 went after them. They were nominated four times at the NME Awards… for Worst Band and Worst Album.
All these years later, pop music is taken seriously by default. Rock is basically dead, and everybody listens to everything now. Calling something “pop” as a way to dismiss it seems like a relic of a time long past. No-one would claim that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Ariane Grande aren’t serious artists, even when they’re criticising them. Rolling Stone declared One Direction one of the greatest rock bands of the century this year, tongues barely in their cheeks.
Yet McFly have not gotten the re-evaluation they deserve. I got into McFly as an adult, basically by accident, and discovered a yawning gap between the band McFly are and the band they were, and still are, perceived to be.
Part 1 – the boys in the band
McFly have spent pretty much their whole career being referred to as a boy band. But were they ever one?
“The book is always better” is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that people tend to parrot back and forth to each other without really believing. It’s obviously untrue in a dozen different ways: even if we leave aside all the ways that books and films being just fundamentally different artforms makes direct comparison reductive at best, I don’t think anyone would argue that The Godfather or Jaws are better books than films, because the books are enjoyable pulpy novels and the films are masterpieces. Besides, good and great films are adapted from books that nobody cares about, or has even heard of, all the time. It’s hardly worth taking “the book is always better” seriously as an idea because the weight of counterexample is so strong.
But people still say it, as a way to fill a silence if nothing else. You mention some new film adaptation of a literary classic or a recent bestseller, and they say, “well, I think the book is always better,” as you nod along sagely, even though neither of you actually think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a pale imitation of the novel. “The book is always better” is just the visible trace of something larger, in how we think about adaptation and how different mediums relate to one another.
Films are great, so why not watch two in a row? And if you’re going to watch two films, why not watch two that complement each other well?
Here are four more double feature recommendations.
God Sent Me To Piss The World Off is a four-part series about Eminem. Links to all parts are below. You can also download the whole thing as a PDF.
There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god.
Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem.
Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.
This is the final part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.
‘Lose Yourself’ is one of the best songs of Eminem’s career. It’s an incredible showcase for his virtuosic rhyming and his mesmerising early-2000s flow, but there’s also the urgent intensity of his delivery, the tense, relentless guitar lick, the instantly recognisable piano intro and how the piano gets layered into the rest of the song. “Mom’s spaghetti” has been memed into oblivion, but the whole song is full of rich, striking imagery of poverty and desperation, from the evocative and metaphorical – “I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot” – to the horrifically mundane: “These goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” It’s one of the only “inspirational” songs that it’s possible to imagine actually inspiring someone. It’s full of an aggressive kind of hope: a hope born of hopelessness, a hope that you cling to because otherwise you’ll die. I knew every word many years before I would listen to any of Eminem’s albums.
‘Lose Yourself’ has largely eclipsed the film it was written for in the cultural consciousness: 8 Mile is remembered as the film that ‘Lose Yourself’ is from, not the other way around. Like Purple Rain, 8 Mile is still well-remembered and -regarded, but more like an appendage to its star’s music career than a film in its own right.
But 8 Mile is a great film: a working-class sports drama in the tradition of Rocky, with rap battles in place of boxing matches. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., nicknamed Rabbit, an aspiring rapper in mid-1990s Detroit. It’s an extraordinary performance, underrated on the assumption that he’s just playing himself. Many people who come to acting from another kind of performance just sort of coast on charisma and presence – The Rock has made a career out of it – but Eminem never coasts. He’s electric. He has extraordinarily expressive eyes: as Ryan Gibney writes for Sight and Sound, he conveys “vulnerability with a simple well-timed blink or wince.”
This is the third part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.
In my late teens, I was immersed in a certain kind of politics that I find very difficult to put words on. So many of the words I have belong to the right, are loaded with implications I wish I could wash away: social justice warrior, virtue-signalling, identity politics. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr – a site I joined to reblog Glee gifsets that became a source for my political worldview – which checks out, because it’s politics that can only really exist online. Centred myopically on privilege/oppression dynamics, even where none are obvious; wielding the word “intersectionality” like both a weapon and a shield; pushing down my doubts because I was told I needed to “unlearn” all the oppressive, toxic shit I’d absorbed from society at large. I was drained of all my self-esteem – wracked with guilt for my whiteness and my cisness, panicking over mistakes I might make, terrified of men who I felt sure would hurt me – and was provided only self-righteousness in its place. I thought of politics as a collection of rules, most of which demand my passivity.
I’m twenty-five now. I’m a democratic socialist, and I think of politics as a coalition of like-minded people fighting for a better world. I find it hard to talk about the politics I held in my late teens and how it affected me, still affects me, because it plays right into the right’s narrative: the leftist hivemind, the shame people from privileged groups are allegedly made to feel, the disinterest in dissenting voices. I don’t want to sound like someone who believes trans bullies beat up kids while shouting “Die, cis scum!” or whatever. But I did feel suffocating anxiety, and that was real, and I think it’s worth talking about. Not just for personal catharsis, but because it’s a story I’ve only ever heard with a different ending to mine, where that kind of politics is rejected to move to the centre, or even the right. (If you think of political alignments as a straight line, that makes sense. But political alignment isn’t a straight line, or a horseshoe, or even an x-y axis.)
This is the second part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?
Discourse around freedom of speech is so terrible that it’s difficult to read the words “free speech” without rolling your eyes. Free speech is a joke: at best it’s an embarrassing forum post by a guy who is absolutely furious that the moderator keeps deleting his My Little Pony memes, at worst it’s a far-right dogwhistle. As outlined by William Davies, the right has diligently spent the last few years manufacturing a “crisis” in free speech that is supposedly infecting everywhere from college campuses to major media outlets. This tactic began in the United States, where freedom of speech is more of a hot button issue in general, and – if cable news is to be believed – college-aged liberal activists have a more developed apparatus for no-platforming speakers or demanding trigger warnings for assigned reading. (I am generally sceptical of the truth of this, because I was immersed in liberal-left university circles here in Ireland for several years at the height of this whole thing and never once encountered a “safe space”, even as middle-aged media personalities went on the radio to complain about safe spaces. I would not be in the least surprised if there are plenty of Americans for whom the same is true.)
Most of the stuff this debate is about is either not censorship or not even really happening, at least at any scale. It is not censorship that some college kids don’t find your gay jokes very funny or that someone put “trigger warning: rape” on their blog post or that The Guardian publishes an article disagreeing with your argument. The fakeness of this whole debate is something everyone left-of-centre is intensely aware of: there might be good-faith arguments to be had about the legitimacy of, say, no-platforming, but free speech warriors – from Fox News hosts down to the lowliest Twitter troll – are not approaching the issue in good faith. When they talk about threats to their free speech, they usually mean threats to the legitimacy of their authority. They say, “why am I not permitted to speak?” because “why are people disagreeing with me? I’m right!” would give too much of the game away.
But this has created a problem on the left. Not that the left “hates free speech”, as the right claims, but in liberals and leftists allowing the right to define the parameters of the debate. The right has made such a habit of calling the dumbest shit censorship – where most of the supposedly silenced end up regularly appearing on Question Time – that the left-of-centre has defensively embraced a minimalist approach to free speech.
This is the first part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Eminem is an underground horrorcore rapper who, through some mix-up in the cosmic order, instead became the best-selling artist of the 2000s. To remember how incredibly big Eminem became in the late 1990s and early 2000s while rapping about killing himself, raping his mother, and murdering his wife seems like peering into some long-distant era: much further away than twenty years should be, more like a time memorialised only in photographs and letters. But that’s not quite right, either. It’s less like a far away past than a hole torn in the fabric of the universe, just wide enough to let a single impossible thing leak through. Eminem managed to feel dangerous even as he became ubiquitous, at once a fact of life and a radical notion that must be supressed at all costs. That tension is one of the defining features of Eminem’s discography: both boundary-pushing and mainstream, both snotty, scrappy underdog and superstar.
Listening to his early albums, it seems at times like he’s trying to Tom Green himself and see what he has to say to get kicked out of the music industry. (“I’m so sick and tired of being admired / That I wish that I would just die or get fired / And dropped from my label,” he raps on ‘The Way I Am’.) He pushes at the extremes in a way that is frequently grotesque, and right when you expect him to pull back, he doubles down.
We’re living in a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive. Quite apart from the politics of it, I think a big reason is that we are still coming off a bit of a saturation point for shock humour in the 2000s, which necessarily meant a lot of people doing it who were quite bad at it. I mean, we lived through a time when Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show were all on the air at the same time, we’re worn out on it, I get it. It’s the same fall from grace that has afflicted slapstick. But good slapstick is hilarious and delightful, and the same goes for good shock humour. Quality shock humour pokes and prods at the inherent arbitrariness of taboos and takes glee in smashing them. Eminem was, in his younger years, as skilled a shock humourist as you’ll find. Much of that is his wit, his self-awareness, his multisyllabic and internal rhymes, and his mesmerizingly slick flows, but a big part is that the guts of two decades has not diluted his early work’s effect. A lot of art that is primarily shocking loses its power with age – the original Frankenstein is a brilliant film, but it sure as shit isn’t scary – but I can’t imagine a time where people don’t gasp and giggle the first time they hear ‘I’m Shady’.
Eminem’s detractors at the time loved to use that against him: to argue that he was just saying stuff for shock value, a meaningless spray of diarrhoea for which he refused to be held to account. But what makes Eminem’s first three major releases – The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show, what you might dub his original trilogy – so special is that they go so far beyond that.
Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.
I wrote a short essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and mental health for Unwinnable‘s zine Exploits. You can buy the issue here.