Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Peter Hoskin and Xavier Greenwood
Nicki Minaj didn’t just cross over with British politics this week, she infiltrated it at practically every level. It began, you’ll remember, with a tweet about her cousin’s friend in Trinidad and his, er… swollen testes. This unfortunate distension had occurred, the rapper suggested, as a result of a COVID-19 jab. She claimed other side-effects, too: impotence, a cancelled wedding...
Then came the carnival. At a press conference in Downing Street, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, accused Minaj of ‘peddling untruths’, adding that she should be ‘ashamed’. Boris Johnson, stood alongside Whitty, chipped in as well: ‘...vaccines are wonderful and everybody should get them.’
In return, Minaj took to Twitter again, first to coo at the British accents on display in that press conference, then to send a voice message to Johnson in which she adopted a British accent of her own. By the end of the day, she’d even fired a few barbs at the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.
Crazy, right? Like, ha-ha, whatever-next, off-the-chain, 2021 crazy.
Except, this situation is actually deadly serious. People like Chris Whitty are currently leading vaccination campaigns that are crucial to prevent people from catching a life-threatening illness and to stop the virus percolating and creating new, more transmissible variants of itself.
And it’s not just Britain. In Trinidad and Tobago, where Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls reside, around 450,000 people have received two vaccine doses – only a third of the population – but its health minister had to spend time debunking Minaj’s claims instead. ‘There is absolutely no reported side effect or adverse event of testicular swelling,’ confirmed Terrence Deyalsingh on Wednesday, ‘and none that we know of anywhere in the world.’
He added that Trinidadian officials had ‘wasted so much time’ to bring us this information.
The tragic irony is that while it is a waste of time for health officials to be running around after a rapper’s tweets when they could be administering vaccines instead, it’s also not. After all, people are influenced by celebrities – and have been for decades. Elvis Presley was jabbed for polio in 1956, backstage on The Ed Sullivan Show, as part of a plan to increase vaccination rates among impressionable teens. Pre-Elvis: the rate was just 0.6%. Six months after his hip-swinging intervention: 80%.
The mechanics of celebrity are different now, of course. Thanks to social media, big stars like Minaj can spray out their worst thoughts – and millions will lap it up. But also thanks to social media, there is now a new type of star. An entire online influencer economy has been created in which ideas, both good and bad, are fed into people’s heads for clicks, for attention, for money, for every second of the day.
That makes it harder for misinformation to be controlled. And the people who might want to do the controlling are now far less trusted. There were popular voices who spoke out against the polio jab in the 1950s, but the government also provided a bulwark against those views spreading too far. Politicians and civil servants would be listened to. Their recommendations followed. And if things were ever going off course, they could always draft in Elvis.
Now? Not so much. Trust for authority figures is heading for the gutters – so the public is reaching for the stars. This has meant the rise of celebrity-politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and in 2021 it can just as much mean that Nicki Minaj is leading the political bulletins.
The borders between culture and politics, which were always quite porous, are now practically non-existent. A rapper’s delight is now our own, and so too are her crazy outbursts. Balls.
Here are this week's recommendations:
Sex Education (Netflix)
The UK is back to school in earnest with the return of Sex Education and more dysfunctional exploits at Moordale Secondary. But the will-they-won’t-they storyline of Otis and Maeve is now just one focus of the series in which no character is left to be a sideshow. It’s an amazing feat to get the audience to care about so many people.
The D’Amelio Show (Disney Plus)
At what price, fame? That’s the main question thrown up by The D’Amelio Show, where we get a haunting insight into the lives of 17-year-old TikTok stars Charli D’Amelio and her sister Dixie. The sisters get amazing opportunities, but they’re also balls of anxiety. ‘I feel like I’ve had a constant panic attack for the past four years,’ says Charli. In one scene, the president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises sets out Charli’s obligations for 2021. The life of a 17-year-old girl reduced to a series of binders. Miserable.
Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam Katzman (Blu-ray)
Cinema can deliver moments that stimulate, shatter, and stun. It can also deliver a big, rubbery vulture-monster attacking a plane in mid-air before gulping down anyone trying to escape by parachute. Home video label Arrow has just put out a box set that includes Sam Katzman’s The Giant Claw (1957), along with three other cheap and schlocky Katzman joints from that period: Creature With The Atom Brain (1955), The Werewolf (1956), and Zombies Of Mora Tau (1957).
Palmares by Gayl Jones
It’s been 22 years since Gayl Jones last published a novel, 1999’s Mosquito, but her name was really made two decades before then, with Corregidora and Eva’s Man in the 1970s – books that, as an Atlantic profile highlighted last year, were celebrated by the likes of James Baldwin and John Updike. Now Jones is back with Palmares: the story of an enslaved girl in Brazil in the 1600s that uses brutally lucid prose to expose the psychological whip-marks left by centuries of oppression. For all her time away, Jones is no less crucial now.
On The Cusp: Days Of '62 by David Kynaston
The latest instalment in Kynaston’s tremendous Tales Of A New Jerusalem series, a history of Britain from the end of the war through to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, focuses on just one eventful year. A lot happened in 1962 and, Kynaston persuasively contends, it was when the 1960s really began.
‘Silk Chiffon’ by Muna, Phoebe Bridgers
Off the back of Lorde’s blissful Solar Power, it seems like the paragons of sad girl music are now moving through sunnier climes. ‘Silk Chiffon’ contains a line that could have been written by a Bridgers bot: ‘I’m high and I’m feeling anxious inside of the CVS.’ But don’t be deceived. The song is bubble-gum bright; its sun-kissed music video a homage to the 1999 cult film But I’m A Cheerleader, which satirised conversion therapy. A beautiful and joyous gay anthem.
When The City Sleeps by Hannes
From Snoh Aalegra to Mabel, Sweden has a vibrant – if understated – R&B scene. Hannes is an important part of it. His new EP When The City Sleeps is just 16 minutes long, but that doesn’t come at the expense of musical ambition. ‘Sugar’ – a tender and playfully electronic song about those early days of a relationship, at home and enveloped in each other – is the highlight.
Also, thank you to our head of programming, Mark St Andrew (@MarkandDrama), for this recommendation:
I’ve Been Trying To Tell You by Saint Etienne
For their tenth album, Saint Etienne have returned to the sample-driven sound of their early days. This is an album light on verse-chorus song structures – and heavy on beats and atmospherics. If the brief was to create the soundtrack to that blissful liminal state between daydream and consciousness, Saint Etienne has more than delivered.
That’s all for now. Have a good weekend.