Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible is my next book, co-written with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke, coming out in February next year from Repeater Books.
My bit looks at the politics and pop culture of 90s Britain, growing up in post-industrial Wales, class and gender and the rest of my usual stuff, and how the album fit or didn’t fit into that context.
(Obviously a cultural materialist analysis of the Manics’ least commercial album is the one thing the world needs right now.)
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 than Oasis happening in the 90s. The issue here is that no other band got so big, so phenomenally quickly, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that – 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. Continue reading
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.
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. 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.
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.
Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same
And it’s “nice one, geezer” –
But that’s as far as the conversation went.
Last weekend was notable for a mass rave held in the heart of London’s West End, in the shadow of Trash’s last resting place. Inevitably, this ended up breathlessly reported in the Guardian as having marked ‘the return of rave culture’. Did it bollocks. Rave culture is, like the poor, always with us, and free sub-legal gatherings are scattered over the country like the unspeakable flakes shaken from a white boy’s dreadlocks.
Last Saturday has, like several other online-organised mass Doings of Cool Stuff, both social and political, set an interesting precedent for the relative power of a sufficiently large group of citizens to dodge, outstrip or overcome police opposition or obstruction through the power of social networking. But that’s as far as my positivity can stretch. I was dubious about the article’s claim that it marked the return of alternative culture – specifically, the free party – as a channel for political opposition, and perversely heartened by the similarly-minded cynicism swamping the comment section. The article has things arse-backwards: a confrontation between the law and people having a good time is a side-effect of the event, not its objective.
As shown by Emma Goldman’s frequently misquoted maxim and, I’d like to think, this blog in general, music is inherently political. Any song retains the imprint of its conditions of production, and you’d be a fool and a Ramones fan to think otherwise. But the question of whether a particular form of music and culture is inherently radical or revolutionary is much murkier. Continue reading