Roisin Murphy (Photo by Pedro Gomes/Redferns)
On Pop

Banned played on

The hit on Roisin Murphy’s ‘Hit Parade’

Who owns an artist? If you’re the artist in question, you might reasonably believe that the person who owns you is, well, you. Fans often think otherwise. Fans are possessive. Their love is strong, but it’s also conditional, and it can alchemise — with little warning — into hatred.

In August, a private Facebook comment by the singer Róisín Murphy was leaked. The comment seemed to be part of a discussion about puberty blockers, which have been used to treat children with gender dysphoria, on the assumption that halting sexual development offers the patient “time to think”.

Without blockers, gender dysphoria seems to resolve in most cases. With them, almost all patients will go on to transition: blockers appear to lock children pre-emptively into a decision. Because they prevent sexual maturity, they can cause infertility. They’re also linked to skeletal problems, and may prevent cognitive maturity.

In the comment, Murphy called blockers “absolutely desolate … Little mixed up kids are vulnerable and need to be protected …” This shouldn’t be a controversial position, given that it more or less restates medical consensus in lay terms. But from a figure like Murphy, who had been designated a “queer icon”, it was a molotov cocktail.

Someone decided that Murphy’s comment needed to be exposed to the world. A screengrab was circulated, in a tweet that accused her of “transphobic views”. “You claim to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community … but here you are letting down your trans fans (and any trans friends you may have),” said the bearded poster, pronouns he/she/they.

The denunciation was instant. Murphy’s label, Ninja Tune, was reported to have withdrawn promotional support for her new album, Hit Parade. Two dates she was due to play at the Rough Trade East venue were cancelled with no explanation. BBC 6 Music spiked a scheduled documentary about her, but denied this was anything to do with the blockers comment.
Murphy apologised. Or rather, she issued a statement saying she was “so sorry my comments have been directly hurtful to many of you”. She promised to “completely bow out of this conversation within the public domain”. Notably, she didn’t disown her position on blockers. For the outraged, this wasn’t enough; for those who agreed with her, it was a concession too far.

In other words, it pandered to neither side. The key bit, to me, was this: “I never patronise or cynically aim my music directly at the pockets of any demographic … For those of you who are leaving me, or have already left, I understand, I really do, but please know I have loved every one of you.”

I suspect that this part did more to distress affronted fans than the original comment. Because what Murphy says here — politely, but unmistakably — is that she will not be beholden to her audience. And this is absolutely in line with her music, which has always been gloriously eccentric, right back to the nineties when she was part of the electropop duo Moloko.

The first song of theirs I noticed was their second single “Fun for Me”, from 1995: “I dreamt that I was very tall / Bigger than King Kong,” sings Murphy, sly and commanding. Even delivering nonsense lyrics like that, she’s effortlessly sexy. On Moloko’s big dance hits — “The Time is Now” and “Sing it Back” — the force of libido in her singing is irresistible.

As a solo artist, she explored that impulse more deeply: “Overpowered”, from 2007, is a gorgeous anthem of helplessness in the face of desire. “When I think that I’m over you / I’m overpowered,” she swoons. The wry “Murphy’s Law” from 2020 contains a promise: “Murphy’s law, I’m gonna meet you tonight / Just one match would relight the flame.” Hot.

Her fans simply decided what she should think on the basis that they liked her, and so she ought to think like them

It’s weird that anyone who knew these songs could be surprised when Murphy was not uncritically pro sterilising children. Yes, she’s excited by gender play, taking inspiration from the arty end of drag; but if you’d asked me to guess her position on trans issues, I’d have had nothing. Above all, she celebrates pleasure — the kinds of pleasure a self-hating teenager isn’t even nearly ready to imagine.

Yet for some, the blocker comments were a betrayal. They “contradict her celebration of individuality” tutted a writer for Paste in a review of Hit Parade. The Guardian’s critic declared that Murphy’s doubts about child transition “jar against her lyrical theme of how delirious it feels to be seen for who you truly are”. (Assuming, I suppose, that the “true self” in question has osteoporosis and no prospect of orgasm in their lifetime.)

Both reviews were positive about the record. How could they not be? Hit Parade is wonderful — shimmering, strange, soulful and funny, it became her biggest chart success. It’s also in no way incompatible with Murphy’s thoughts about blockers. Her fans simply decided what she should think on the basis that they liked her, and so she ought to think like them.

Murphy never has been that kind of popstar. She isn’t interested in being anyone else’s idea of who she is. On Hit Parade’s “CooCool”, she purrs that she would be “more than amenable / To comply”, weird and languorous like a robot Dusty Springsteen. But even when she’s submitting to someone else’s will, it’s always in the service of her own satisfaction. You can love her but you’ll never own her.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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