There was a danger, with my writing this post during a week when my union, UCU, was carrying out industrial action, that the piece would congeal into a rant. If that is indeed what has happened… my apologies.
I seem to have put myself in a situation where I am constantly required to think about popular music and then to try and find something “academic” to say about it. While in a number of ways this is an excellent place to be, it has made me realize that, with some exceptions, I don’t like music as such. I don’t hate it, and some of it I find positively life affirming. I love making music or listening to my favorite albums on repeat or hearing something new at some sort of anachronistic pretentious vinyl ritual with friends. But when I listen to the radio I think God, so after you finish hosting the show you have to go trawling through the internet to find new music to play for the next day?! I don’t envy that career path. I dread being deluged with artistic material that I am required to care about. Perhaps this is because I am over inhibited and perhaps my academic pursuits have made access to unfettered enjoyment of the medium more difficult. I think that it also has something to do with a desire, on my part, to really spend time investing part of myself in what I am listening to. This seems to be at odds with media consumption today. With more access to music making and music sharing, there is perpetually an abundance of new music, on which anyone who discusses music is expected to have an opinion. Should such an opinion not be forthcoming, accusations of philistinism could soon abound. That’s all fine though, I’m simply laying out my out-of-touchness with the contemporary experience of popular music as a disclaimer and an introduction to the topic.
In an attempt to address this out-of-touchness, a few weeks ago I decided to look at the web output of that historically important UK music magazine NME. I found the video entitled “NME Young Britannia Stars On… Politics.” Clearly, this is part of a series promoting those bands and artists NME consider to be “Young Britannia Stars.” But it seemed an unnecessary and intriguing risk to get them to discuss politics. In recent years, many have found NME — with its propensity for bandwagon jumping, obnoxious award statute and vapid cool lists — to be an annoying culmination of affectation with little in the way of substantive musical journalism. It seemed even this now disreputable music paper could not escape the appearance of a swelling torrent of political engagement in the zeitgeist. However, what I found in the video was, for the most part, a disappointment.
Maybe it has something do with the change in my relation to verbiage over the last few years, but I find lyrics like “She takes the time, she grows the flowers in my mind” from Swim Deep’s “She Changes the Weather” (incidentally a remarkable title) to be bordering on the insipid, particularly when I know I can find consciousness altering remarks like “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do” (a quote that is likely familiar to many regular readers of this blog), in literature.
Of course you can say that the medium requires more vagary and poetics but it also sounds a little like they are trying to fill out the beats. To reduce songs to what appears in the lyrics is disingenuous. Lyrical music is of course about the relationship of a number of different elements and the blurring of such boundaries. But this isn’t about the songs. Some of which (Avery, Gruesome and Peace particularly) I am glad to have found. After all it would be simplistic to consider the political potential of a song to only reside within the level of lyrical propaganda. Especially now, when, then UK’s cultural landscape is hostile to any career path that avoids 40 hours a week at a computer screen selling your alienated labor power for the production of surplus value, the act of choosing to make music at all is arguably a substantial, if inconsistent, political gesture.
Also, I don’t mean to write any of these people off entirely, and it is problematic to speculate about the backgrounds of any of these individuals. I can suspect trendy art schools and an upbringing of material comfort, but such accusations would not even work as a complete excuse or explanation. So I want to focus on the impression that I concocted from viewing these responses. There is, after all, nothing outside of the text.
These pioneers of youthful musical exuberance sounded like nervous interns. This is not to disparage interns. Interns have every reason to be nervous; paid next to or nothing for the ephemeral promise that, by gathering CV lines and glowing references, there could be a job in the future. It may no longer exist as the labor is now done entirely by unpaid interns but it would be strange if no one were ever hired. So long as you keep your head down and say nothing to offend anyone or rock the boat, it might just work out. This is not the attitude you expect to find in cavalier young rock stars.
There were however some positive notes. Daniel Avery expressed an understandable disenchantment and a genuine, if lackluster, desire for something to happen to engage his audience politically. Joanna Gruesome seemed to have a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of politics to recognize the importance of not violating their personal ethics for career advancement. If the featurette had consisted only of interviews like this it would hardly require comment. It cannot be expected that every musician who attains some degree of success will have an acute response to the global impact of neoliberalism. Especially, when pounced on, at what may have been an early morning photo shoot, by someone with a desperate need to generate “content.”
However other remarks were so vacuous and/or problematic that it made me wonder: how is the cerebral energy of those in question capable of holding a beat? But again it would be a sign of an unsavory superiority complex if I were only to focus on the inanity of Chlöe Howl declaring there to be no place for politics in music. Or that Swim Deep guy deciding that politics in music means writing a song about David Cameron (which sounded suspiciously like the Prime Minister was the only politician he knew by name [incidentally I do not know, or have any intention of finding out, this musician’s name]) and that music should be an “escape from all that”… “whatever depression is going on” (the whole point of music from a conservative perspective). Or, perhaps most heinous of all, the young man from Peace (here I have a similar problem regarding his identity) worrying about being associated with the cliché of the protest song. And it’s not simply that these attitudes are being expressed that is the problem.
Conviction always has a sincere appeal. More worrying is that the position that these “Young Britannia Stars” now occupy has been eviscerated as a space in which young fans can hear unfamiliar political ideas from their idols. The previous peculiar placing of being able to speak-truth-to-power while being totally enamored of powerful record label success was a situation that smacked of hypocrisy but also carried with it a potential.
Rebellion may have been reified and commoditized in western guitar music post-68, tipping into rebellion as total hedonism with 1980s hair metal, but it still forced open a space where imagining the world as other than it is was an expected part of experiencing the music (though not an essential requirement as David Cameron’s enjoyment of “Eton Rifles” demonstrates). In an earlier forms, the “escape” that the “Swim Deep guy” spoke of wasn’t from the world and its problems but to a better world that this one could be. As disappointing as George Harrison’s rebellion being focused on the “Taxman,” John Lennon’s misogyny, the appropriation of punk and grunge to sell pre-distressed jeans or sweatshop Adidas on the bodies of Radiohead are, and they legitimately are disappointments, just being disappointed is at least a sign of expecting more from them and the world around us. This doesn’t justify such betrayals, but failing to live up to the expectations of others at least allows them to have expectations, supported or dejected by art and artist. If expectations are dead, everything is permitted.
If, as Cate le Bon says, in what she/NME regard as the music scene, “[we’re] lacking any real rebels […] its all gotten quite polite” while, as Avery remarks, “the ground is fertile right now” for a political movement against the status quo, what will become of music if no one involved in making music wants to come on board? Music would complete the journey from autonomous art form to irredeemable PR device that it has been on for the last hundred years.
When some of the artists in this video talk I hear people so relieved to be, for the time being at least, out of “all that,” which the rest of the world has to put up with. It’s partly the fault of NME for cobbling together such a retrograde promo for a now long discarded segment, but nonetheless this piece of fluff bears a dark core. As Chlöe Howl shows her disdain for the idea of reflecting the political situation in her music, she is unwitting (or more terrifying, wittingly, but that is perhaps more credit than is due) reflecting the politics of a part of the population that finds nothing wrong with the claim that we live in post-ideological times.