Alex Niven’s book on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe is out now and worth your time. It’s a book about working-class art, working-class politics, and the decline of both in Britain since the 90s, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s also a book about Oasis. So for the purposes of this post, which isn’t about Oasis, let’s talk about Oasis first:
Yes, it’s alright if you think Oasis were shit. Yes, Oasis went downhill fast – almost immediately, in fact. Yes, Oasis were a more ‘authentic’ version of the freewheeling should-know-better casually chauvinist Lad that, in Niven’s term, the ‘bourgeois wing of Britpop’ attempted to pantomimically portray, and no, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Music press, tabloids and lad-mags in the 90s lionised the Gallaghers’ laddishness as part of a tediously retrograde cultural discourse that was intent on rolling back the ‘politically correct’ gains of the decades before. This same discourse imposed a false dichotomy of class, in which Oasis’ supposed proley authenticity was linked with loutish ignorance and excess, while experimentation, education and glorious pretentiousness were presented as the preserve of the middle class. So yes, Oasis were damaging. But more by accident – or by deliberate exploitation by a largely middle-class cultural industry – than by design.
And yes, there was more interesting, more progressive and more worthwhile stuff happening in the 90s. The issue here is that nothing else got anywhere near as big as Oasis, as fast as Oasis, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that phenomenal mass appeal – you know, beyond the not-even-trying paradigm of “people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis; you can’t trust people, Jeremy”. The book’s background argument on this, to which I am a rock-solid subscriber, is that, as 90s politics capitulated to a post-Thatcher consensus, a more subversive, anti-establishment spirit persisted in early-90s pop culture – including early Oasis alongside the Manics, Pulp, Kenickie etc – which then got flattened under Cool Britannia, Blairism, and Britpop’s imperial stage. Overthinking it? Yeah, if you like. Better than underthinking it, mate.
(I’d like to stop talking about Oasis now. Thanks.)
The book also argues in favour of recovering a left-populist tradition, in and outside the Labour party, the existence of which the Blairite tendency attempted to wipe off the face of the earth and which now, when not entirely forgotten or overlooked, is presented in a distorted way by left and right, as mere nostalgic sentiment or as bigoted underclass resentment. That the book does this is great. What’s frustrating, though, is that this fairly mild, unapologetic call to remember, recover and revive a British tradition of grassroots socialism – more fully articulated in Niven’s debut Folk Opposition – has to appear in the form of cultural criticism, rather than in open debate in the mainstream of British politics.
It’s become almost impossible, in official political discourse, to even raise the possibility of an alternative to the currently collapsing capitalist consensus and the austerity needed to sustain it. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed here: the imposition of austerity is causing rising rates of homelessness, mental illness and (even) suicide, while the financial elite are becoming richer than ever and we are told to begrudge our neighbour their seventy quid a week living allowance. The Liberal Democrats, in their craven collaboration with the architects of this, have been worse than useless – though if you honestly expected anything more then you’re a first-time voter, a fool, or an SDP supporter manqué. But Labour, the ostensible official opposition, has been almost as bad on any alternative to austerity, clumsily planting their flag on an increasingly crowded scrap of right-wing ground while ignoring the vast expanse of room to manoeuvre that still exists to their left. The possibility of articulating a left-populist alternative is not just dismissed out of hand, but actively recoiled from with a knee-jerk fear out of all proportion to reality.
Part of the point of Nineties Revisionism, whether Niven’s or my own, is to challenge the received wisdom that the turn taken in the 90s was the only one possible, and that its ongoing negative results were regrettable but inevitable. Current austerity rhetoric is a similar kind of received wisdom, a refusal to consider or even admit alternatives, as depressingly prevalent in the Labour party as it is in the mainstream media. That the space for discussing and even recognizing alternatives exists only in the margins of cultural and political discourse is both a result of our neoliberal turn since the 90s and an indictment of it.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but, when deciding to write Clampdown – which is on one level an attempt to intervene in a left-wing politics that often ignores women, and a feminism that often ignores class – I didn’t see any viable space for writing about my particular political perspective and getting it into print. Certainly the prevailing impression, in the academic and post-academic left circles by whom I wished to be taken seriously, was that an unsophisticated, open subscription to the basic principles of socialism, and especially an unashamed focus on class identity, was hopelessly passé. Academia wasn’t immune to the 90s turn to class denial, seeing the direct articulation of class identity as not only outmoded but frankly embarrassing. I assume this distaste for discussing class stemmed in part from the end of the Cold War, and in more recent part from the erosion of working-class access to higher education. Regardless of its parts, as a whole it sucked.
The thing is, cultural studies in Britain has a proud, politically engaged history, from Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams on down. But in the 90s and after the discipline appeared to arrive at an unhelpful level of abstraction, where it sometimes seemed that any relation one’s analysis of culture might bear to the material world was an afterthought, rather than a driving-force. You could have all the theory you liked, as long as you never attempted to practically apply it. I don’t know how much of this was tied to the postmodern fear of being thought unsophisticated for acknowledging grand narratives, for remaining embarrassingly tied to ideology (but only to overtly left-wing ideology, curiously enough), or for giving credit to the continued existence of anything so vulgar as class struggle. The triumph of irony in the 90s made it uncool to even have convictions, let alone have the courage of them.
At any rate, two years ago I wrote a book, out of the wish to bring some of the vanished political aspects of my identity and heritage to wider attention (beyond the limited bounds of, like, my blog), to ask what had happened to their representation in politics and culture, and to engage with contemporary feminism outside of academia. Given the analyses I saw granted the most credence and consideration, I felt the only plausible way of doing this was through a kind of entryism. I felt the need to go undercover, to adopt a sleight-of-hand (“god Britpop, eh, what was that all about?”) through which to smuggle in questions of class and gender, and to focus on talking about pop culture as a proxy for politics, rather than talking straightforwardly about politics itself.
I managed it, of course (and sure enough, Clampdown‘s content got repeatedly described as “refreshing”, which is a highly relative term), so there’s a limit to how much I can complain. In fact, there’s an emergent set of criticism and commentary produced by those of us who came of age in the ’90s – from Owen Hatherley’s pioneering Militant Modernism to Agata Pyzik’s Poor But Sexy – which is concerned with scouring the 20th century to recover roads not taken, lost potential and missed opportunities, to point out that there were alternatives, and still can be. More power to the handful of publishers who enable such excavations. But why do you have to read a book on Oasis, or the Manics, or film, or architecture – or indeed write one – in order to see the vanished tradition of grassroots, collectivist, internationalist small-l labourism in this country even acknowledged, let alone presented positively? There is a constituency, an audience – a market, if we really must – for talking about socialism, and socialist feminism, and the interplay of class, race, and gender in culture and politics, even if the arenas of debate are small and scattered. Currently, in the absence of mainstream mass platforms, we take what we can get – small publishing deals, obscure blogs, niche music series – and we use it to lever open closed doors and closed-off discourses. This kind of interdisciplinary entryism is a means to an end, but it’s hardly helpful if the exploration of alternatives to the current regime stays backed into the cultural studies corner.
1. For my next trick in the arena of niche overthinking-it monographs, I am going to be writing a book on the Rebecca riots. There have already been magisterial studies of the movement which have focused on its political and economic aspects, but I am going to look at its social and cultural aspects, and the ways in which it had more variety, more politics, and more of Old Weird Wales than is generally acknowledged.
To include: why there was a bit more to the movement than hill-farmers smashing up tollgates in bonnets, petticoats and false beards; the nature of Welsh resistance to early industrial capitalism (as touched on in this post); contemporary ideas of gender and the early Victorian undermining of female social and sexual agency; how Rebecca’s image became a national ‘idiom of defiance’ – basically, a meme – and wider issues hopefully relevant to today, eg “rough” versus “respectable” protest; the traditions of masked and anonymous protesting; and how popular culture can be integrated into popular resistance.
Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that this book will be of interest to about four people at a push.
2. The last time I was in the House of Commons in any official capacity, I was taking students to lobby against the introduction of top-up fees. Our side having narrowly lost that vote, I then got massively drunk in the ULU bar, decided to give up student politics as a mug’s game, ranted at a Sky News crew and eventually had to be carried out to a taxi by members of my delegation.
Things I’ve written elsewhere:
- For the Wales Arts Review, What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do For Me: on female artistic expression, theory vs practice, post-punk, class and feminism, the 90s, adolescence, and Courtney Love, I think that’s everything.
- For Planet on the centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster, a piece about the issues it continues to raise around Welsh identity and the history of working-class exploitation and resistance.
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
I am in print this month, having written a chapter on women in post-punk for Julia Downes’ new history of the girl band, Women Make Noise. A surprisingly difficult part of this was establishing what we talk about when we talk about post-punk. Post-punk’s disorderly, subversive and category-resistant nature has seen it marginalised in accounts of its era, although the past few years have produced a handful of useful retrospectives, as well as the early-2000s revival of post-punk musical techniques which, if you still can’t explain what it is, at least make it easier to explain what it sounds like.
For me, a large part of post-punk’s significance was that it seemed to involve an unprecedented amount of women as artists, fans, critics and ideologues. Extending the gains of punk’s emphasis on DIY culture, accessibility and amateurism, post-punk women were able to take their bands in experimental and innovative directions. Post-punk’s ideological concern with the politicisation of the personal, and with identifying and promoting authenticity in the face of popular cultural stereotypes, lent itself to exploration from a feminine and feminist angle, resulting in lyrics which demystified and deconstructed conventional femininity, love, sex and romance, and which analysed social and cultural pressures on women or the tensions of personal relationships in implicitly political ways. Continue reading
In my former life as a shiftless, rootless, and economically useless humanities student, I researched and wrote on weird, failed, disreputable and consequently marginalised or forgotten moments in the history of popular resistance to industrial capitalism – food riots, rough music, cross-dressing and animal masks, legendary figureheads (Ludd, Swing, Rebecca) and the use of theatre, symbol and spectacle. My guiding principle was that eighteenth and nineteenth-century protest often contained a popular symbolic and ritual repertoire adapted for the purposes of expressing discontent, and that it also made visible an increasing conflict between established popular custom and the nascent doctrines of industrial capitalism and constitutional law. Some of what I wrote is here, though it’s not very good.
If you’ve never read about any of this then you ought, it’s great. E P Thompson’s concept of a ‘moral economy’ motivating collective social and economic protest – the idea of a continuous extra-parliamentary and extra-legal tradition based on an appeal to established popular rights, which juxtaposed natural and social justice with prevailing civil and criminal laws – still finds expression where it has to, from ‘proletarian shopping’ to the ideas of social justice expressed through ‘rough music’ in the recent kickings-off in Montreal and Quebec. I mean, one might be tempted to conclude that the increasingly visible powerlessness of the average citizen to exercise opinion by constitutional means has encouraged a return to more immediate and hands-on methods of collective bargaining.
Anyway, the Scotch Cattle – an early attempt at industrial organisation in 1820-40s south Wales – are obscure and getting obscurer: one monograph, a couple of local history articles, and minor mentions here and there, usually with audible disapproval. The Scotch Cattle tend to be dismissed in traditional histories of labour and of Wales, due to their failure to fit neatly into narratives of either the sober and respectable growth of trade unionism or the development of an orderly Welsh society. This is a large part of what interests me about them and others like them, though they are also fascinating on their own terms, being at once an obvious and logical response to the conditions of early industrial capitalism, and peculiar as fuck.
Much to my own surprise, I have an article on the Scotch Cattle published in this month’s Welsh History Review – I presume out now, or impending. My take on them is that they are a hybrid movement, representing the attempts by workers to transfer their accustomed techniques of pre-industrial protest – yer basic charivari – to the untested environment of the south Welsh coalfield in its wild and brutalising stage of development (in Gwyn A. Williams’ useful phrase, its ‘frontier years’). Divorced from their original context and the social relations on which they depended, these techniques were open to mutation and fragmentation, and their effective operation was no longer guaranteed, with less than hilarious consequences.
That’s what my research has led me to conclude, at least. Throw in proto-class war, contested constructions of masculinity, and the old ritualised ultraviolence, and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that my application for AHRC funding got turned down three years on the trot.
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.
So: I’ve written a chapter on female post-punk musicians* for a forthcoming women-in-music book. I mostly talk about the Slits, the Raincoats, Linder Sterling, Lydia Lunch (unavoidably), ESG, the Au Pairs, Delta 5, Pauline Black, Barbara Ess, Ut., Mars, the Bush Tetras, the Bloods, Malaria!, Kleenex/LiLiPUT, and latterly Erase Errata, Sonic Youth, Scissor Girls, Karen O, Nisennenmondai etc.
Now: I didn’t include any illustrations with the writing, because my grasp of decent visual art is comparable to Boris Johnson’s grasp of his handlebars after a heavy night out. But apparently it would be nice to have some.
Therefore: I’m looking for suitable images – photographs, illustrations, cartoons – for inclusion in the chapter. Anything relevant considered especially if it pertains to the bands mentioned. Full credit given, further details on request, please pass this on if you can think of anyone who’d care. Thank you.
Also: it is my birthday. I’m going to celebrate with fresh air and daylight.
I have an essay in this month’s New Welsh Review on the impact of digitization on publishing as compared to the music industry. I wrote it without anticipating FutureBook’s overview, which does commendable spade-work explaining the situation’s background, present and future, whereas I mostly just snark from the sidelines.
In essence: big publishing houses have, like velociraptors, watched and learned from the music industry’s floundering and are now primed to do better out of e-publishing. My piece also covers the Indelicates’ ‘post-internet’ site Corporate Records, the pros and cons of self-publishing, the unpleasant prospect of e-books becoming the new disposable mass-market paperbacks while physical product becomes concentrated on luxury hardbacks, and why Hodder’s dubious flipback format is the literary equivalent of the MiniDisc.
Perhaps ironically, it’s unavailable online, but the print copy is accessible in all good stockists, or at least all Welsh ones.