You may be wondering why I haven’t leapt into the current wave of 90s/Britpop nostalgia with all the teeth-bared alacrity of a pseudo-academic Berserker, desperate to point out that the career of Alex James highlights everything wrong with the world. The reasons I haven’t are, broadly, that a) I desire a worthier opponent than Alex James; b) Britpop isn’t, and really never was, the problem. Anything I might want to say about Britpop is wider than Britpop itself and concerns the particular intertwined development of politics, culture and society in that weird and decisive decade.
The problem with the 90s wasn’t simply that “politics” (specifically, the recognition of class as a political identity) vanished from mainstream pop culture, but that it vanished from mainstream politics too. After the Tories’ scorched-earth approach to industry in the 80s, the 90s saw a salting of the ground though privatization of the railways and the coal industry – as though by removing a class’s economic basis for existence one could somehow magically remove the class itself. Meanwhile, the Labour Party saw Blair’s ascendancy and the ditching, along with Clause 4, of its traditional base of support. In the late 90s, Blair’s rictus-grinned insistence on liberal harmony had no more room for class conflict than Major’s early-90s confected nostalgia for a pre-Sixties (‘back-to-basics’) England. In both politics and pop culture, we were held to be all middle-class now: in the swirl of postmodern irony, nothing mattered – certainly not your socio-economic position – so everything was permitted. The fact that alternative guitar music ended up mirroring this short-term hedonism and boorish chauvinism, and abandoning its early-90s countercultural instinct, makes it more a victim of the era than a villain.
The 90s cultural studies bandwagon should not be allowed to flatten the complexities of those years in the same way that commercialization steamrollered early-Britpop’s interest and potential and left us with Cool Britannia. In the strange and significant year of 1994, as Alex Niven points out, the movement that became Britpop retained a lot of chippy subversiveness, earnest optimism, and creativity, which was later lost to money-making, irony, and formulaic blandness. While capitalism has always been able to commodify alternative culture, and rebellion has always been turned into money, the 90s set in motion a wider process whereby pursuits previously associated with collective enjoyment, escapism and improvement particularly for the working class – whether pop music, or football, or the Labour Party – were sanitized and made safe for those beyond their traditional pale. This would have mattered less had it not been accompanied by the rise of networks of nepotism and the spread of unpaid interning in arts, media and politics, which not only reduced the ability to compete but began edging the working-class and/or non-independently wealthy out of the arena entirely, to an extent that is now glaringly apparent. All this alongside a relentless pretence at meritocracy and a stress on individualism over collectivism, implying that dissatisfaction with your circumstances was not a result of structural conditions, but an individual failing that only you could change – by altering yourself and not the system.
Perhaps the Labour Party’s Blairite turn played into the shape that 90s opposition to the Tories took, being scrappy and direct – Reclaim the Streets, 1994’s Criminal Justice Bill protests – and displaying an attitude to constitutional politics that was at best distrustful and at worst disgustedly disenfranchised. The turn to direct action and civil disobedience rather than parliamentary politics grew throughout the 00s’ anticapitalist (‘anti-globalisation’, in the parlance of the day) movements, reaching its zenith perhaps in Occupy.
None of which should have happened at all, of course. What reasons did we 90s children have for dissatisfaction or dissent now that it wasn’t the 80s anymore? Another of this year’s anniversaries is of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which should in theory have rendered us with nothing to protest about. The ‘end of history’ bore as much relation to reality as ‘we are all middle-class now’, but it fitted very well with the arrogant complacency with which the West began the 90s. It fitted in too with a Britain punch-drunk and reeling from the 80s but denied the means to articulate the fact that the fight was still on. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if framed in terms of emotion and not economics. This of course dovetailed with the erasure of class and the emphasis on individual striving and ambition as a cure-all, without reference to socio-economic conditions which might hinder an individual’s ability to achieve. So the 90s ideology claimed: if you couldn’t achieve, you needed to work on yourself and your sense of ambition and entitlement (after all, girls can do anything, just look at Thatcher!); if you were stuck on benefits then you probably preferred it that way, otherwise you would have striven and done something about it; and if at some point you wondered about any of this, if you were anxious or unsure, then again, you needed to treat yourself kindly, to be soothed, to consume, to empower yourself through earning and spending. You certainly didn’t need to conclude that the problems might (still) be systemic, still external, still political rather than personal.
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.
Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’? Continue reading
Two things I wrote recently on the music, culture and politics of that weird, desultory decade, the 1990s:
1. Up Close and Personal: Lost Girls
For the decade blogs, my Tesco Value Greil Marcus number on gender, class, Britpop and everything after, chav-hysteria and narrowing of access.
2. Rebel Music #5: Manic Street Preachers
For New Left Project, a cleaned-up and condensed version of my customary closing-time rant on the politics of the Manic Street Preachers. I know I fail to mention, eg, Soviet chic, or Castro, or self-harm and anorexia, or the band’s appeal to teenage girls, or anything after This is my Truth Tell me Yours. It’s not that they’re irrelevant, they’re just relevant to a different article. Or possibly a whole book.
I mean, I don’t hate ‘Ill Manors’. I did at first, almost instinctively, but I like it more the more I hear it. I also find it easier to take in without the video. (Also that sample of ‘Alles Neu’ gives me flashbacks to 2008 when an ex of mine would repeatedly play it; fair enough you can never escape your past, but I don’t think anyone expects theirs to pursue them in the form of Peter Fox.) Still, the alacrity with which it’s been leapt on as the protest song we’ve all been waiting for has slightly surprised me, even though it’s more vital and switched-on than, from a year ago:
and – maybe – more accessible than, lest we forget its glory, and the possibility of ‘TOSSAH’ being the present Secretary of State for Health’s epitaph:
I’m not convinced ‘Ill Manors’ taps the roots of the present malaise with any greater degree of elegance and articulacy than, say, Dizzee Rascal did in 2003:
Something that seemed to get overlooked in the past few years’ constant referencing of a ‘lost generation’ and of ‘graduates without a future’ was that, lower down the socio-economic scale, little had substantially changed. For many with memories that stretch beyond the credit crunch, the last recession and the last UK election, attaining comfort and security has always been a struggle, prospects have never been great, and home-owning and independently funded internships, for instance, have always been implausibilities. For many there has always been poverty, precarity, petty criminality and police animosity, even if the past few years have exacerbated their reach and increased their visibility, resulting in their sudden horrified pointing out by those who might previously have missed them due to being shielded by better prospects and broader horizons.
Although ‘Sittin’ Here’ is nearly a decade old, running through it is a very relevant current of chill and clampdown. But ‘Sittin’ Here’ is not a ‘protest song’. It’s a laconic, fatalistic and very mature anatomy of socio-economic melancholy. Simmering but unspoken discontent, alienation, anomie and lacking signs of positive change have for a long time been a way of life to which many have of necessity had to reconcile themselves, not a sign of the final crisis or a spur to mounting the barricades.
I guess timing is everything, though. There’s an inescapable sense (as in, one is constantly given the impression) of right now being either turning-point or snapping-point. The recently added ingredient of a recklessly ideological government seems to have clarified and amplified things that have been the case for a while, made them more immediate and obvious. ‘Ill Manors’ does validly externalize rather than brood over its anger and confusion, and doesn’t assume some golden age of mortgages for all and paid internships cruelly wrested from this generation by everyone over the age of twenty-four. ‘We’ve had it with you politicians you bloody rich kids never listen / There’s no such thing as broken Britain we’re just bloody broke in Britain / What needs fixing is the system not shop windows down in Brixton / Riots on the television you can’t put us all in prison’ is a very hard line to argue with.
So little allure does contemporary music hold that I forgot the Brit Awards were taking place this year, and spent last Tuesday evening in the bowels of a club in that odd hipster-troubled enclave north of Oxford Street, watching Tim Burgess launch his autobiography. Well, we all have to pay the rent somehow.
You recall the rash of soi-disant Minor Indie Celebs which infested post-Libertines London? If you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you; they were peole like the Queens of Noize, or The Holloways. But if you do, you might also recall that a secondary feature of this period was the reemergence of several 90s indie also-rans (now there’s a tautology for you), lurking in support slots and at DJ sets, most often in the vicinity of Barat and less frequently of Doherty. Apparently the 90s are now officially back – finally! The 90s revival has been ‘impending’ for at least four years – which at least means the 80s aren’t back any longer, unless you count things like politics, economics, society and culture. But the 90s never really went away, their cultural detritus over the past decade continually bobbing to the surface like something unflushable.
Tim Burgess is harmless enough, of course, and to criticise him feels akin to cudgelling a seal-pup. The book, like the Charlatans, is probably a perfect example of its inoffensive, tolerable, un-vital type. After exacting dissections of Blair and Britpop, the 90s as the subject of memoir and history doesn’t even have the shock of the new, although a wider perspective on the music of the period does show what an odd time it was, post-Thatcher and pre-Blair, briefly and freakishly fertile before the greywash. And even afterwards: this happened at a Brit Awards ceremony in the 90s, and so did this. Privatised and atomised examples of protest, sure, but you know, if I somehow missed Adele making a Bastille-storming speech on Tuesday about the scandal of government money being siphoned off by private companies who maintain their luxurious lifestyles off the backs of the unemployed, then do correct me.
Anyway, the only point I vividly recall about Tim Burgess’s autobiography was the repeatedly-mentioned chapter entitled – and I haven’t checked the spelling here – ‘Cocainus’. ‘It’s a portmanteau word’, explained the author, with no great necessity, ‘formed from the words “cocaine” and “anus”‘. Rarely have the 90s been so succinctly summed up.
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ‘em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
Also, you know what I’m bored of? I’m bored of middle-class pontificators referencing Situationism. It’s a useful analytical tool for any bedroom-bound fourteen-year-old Manics fan (hi!), but give it a rest now, you’re making it about as interesting as dubstep.
God I’m restless.
Simon Reynolds has decently condensed his new ‘un into a Guardian article:
As the last decade unfolded, noughties pop culture became steadily more submerged in retro. Both inside music (reunion tours, revivalism, deluxe reissues, performances of classic albums in their entirety) and outside (the emergence of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive, endless movie remakes, the strange and melancholy world of retro porn), there was mounting evidence to indicate an unhealthy fixation on the bygone…
The book is not a lament for a loss of quality music – it’s not like the well-springs of talent have dried up or anything – but it registers alarm about the disappearance of a certain quality in music: the “never heard this before” sensation of ecstatic disorientation caused by music that seems to come out of nowhere and point to a bright, or at least strange, future.
I don’t wish to dollop even further layers of irony on top of this particular trifle – but we’ve been here before, too, haven’t we? This is repetition, if not revival. What Reynolds castigates as ‘retromania’ has been sporadically identified throughout the past decade, most perspicaciously by several of my mates around about the point at which the third pint starts to make its presence felt, because we’re old enough to remember when revivals seemed novel, if only because this was the first we’d heard of them. Continue reading
While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.