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Over the last few days, half of England burned. The other half talked witless bollocks about it.

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Bullingdon Club

by Tamsin Chapman

Here’s a binary for you. Over the last few days, half of England burned. The other half talked witless bollocks about it.

Internet reactions to the recent riots in British cities prove more than ever before, the limitations of a 500 character Facebook update or a 140 character Tweet in making sense of a complex situation. Truth dies when news stories are reduced to binaries: good, evil, black, white, them, us. Difficult concepts are dumbed down into sound bites. We click ‘like’ and make a cup of tea. But once a narrative is in place, it’s difficult to unpick. It becomes a snare of bullshit and barbed wire that flattens diverse voices and views. Actual, flesh and blood human beings are lost, leaving only crass generalisations and Britain Tweetwalks its way to ruin. You bray on the internet one day for a water cannon. This time next year you’re living under martial law.

So where are pop musicians in all this? Have they anything to add? Pop is a bouquet of binaries, so no doubt once a few of the silly sods start jumping on the bandwagon, the discourse will get even more facile. Like this:

Note the words introducing it, “This rap is as powerful as anything else as it is created in the same language as some of those involved in the riots understand”.

See what I mean about generalisations? And see what I mean about witless bollocks?

And just think what tit-aching, cut-your-own-ears-off-with-a-rusty-butterknife platitudes of horror we’re in for when the likes of Adele or Razorlight get round to releasing a benefit dreckord.

And YET. Despite all this, there’s still something inside me which is crying out for pop music to start attempting to articulate some of the terrifying shit that’s happening –war, financial meltdown, cuts to essential services, a sense of hopelessness so deep that some don’t even know what hope means. I feel scared, confused and angry about the world, and I want to see that reflected in the music I listen to. Not all the time, but some of the time. And the best songs can sometimes do that. A song like ‘Shipbuilding’ is subtle, there’s no chest-beating. A song like ‘Ghost Town’ is not subtle, but encapsulates a moment in time.

When news of the riots hit, the songs everyone were posting on Facebook were the same ones again and again: The Specials, The Clash, Junior Murvin, The Smiths. These songs are 20 to 30 years old. Where are the songs for now?

I love indiepop. However, the solipsism and apoliticism, the nostalgia and escapism of bands like the Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and all the other hazy, lazy dream-pop girls and boys is beginning to stick in my craw. The lyrics are inconsequential and there’s no engagement with the world outside. I’m not saying that always has to happen, sometimes it’s fine just to write songs about holding hands, or dancing or fucking. I wouldn’t want all bands to write political songs, but just some might be nice. And don’t even get me started on chillwave.

(Before we go any further, I just want to make it clear that I’m talking here specifically about the bands that dominate the blogosphere, those labelled ‘indiepop’, ‘alternative’, whatever. Hip-hop and grime musicians undoubtedly are writing about more that just their belly buttons, and that’s probably why I’ve been listening to more and more of it lately. Here’s one example, not only does he cover about 60 issues in under six minutes, but revolutionarily, he’s a male rapper who talks about being insecure:)

And I’m sure there are loads of people all over the world working in different musical traditions that I’m unfamiliar with, and saying all sorts of interesting things. However, my default setting is indiepop, and it’s what I know about the most. So I want to explore why in particular these sort of bands aren’t writing challenging lyrics? Can it be because they’re largely white? Surely not?

(continues overleaf)

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10 Responses to Over the last few days, half of England burned. The other half talked witless bollocks about it.

  1. Princess Stomper August 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Amid the “witless bollocks” being spouted from all sides about the riots, two beautifully-written columns caught my eye yesterday – one in The Times, the other from the Guardian. Interestingly, they both said much the same thing, and if nothing else they at least restored my faith in journalism.

    As for political music, I remember Jesus Jones’ hopeful ‘Right Here, Right Now’ as the soundtrack to the fall of communism – or if you wanted to go a bit more indie-credible, ‘Blues for Ceaucescu’ by The Fatima Mansions.

    More recently, I love ‘Sincerely, Jane’ by Janelle Monae as a general state-of-the-nation address – and totally agree with you about Lily Allen, particularly ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’.

  2. er... August 13, 2011 at 10:07 am

    This piece is about as depressing as it’s possible to get in light of the current situation. I need to hear something hopeful right now. You raise some good points. I’m surprised that the Prodigy weren’t on your list. Morrisey said a while back that no one has anything to say these days.

  3. Tamsin Chapman August 13, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Erika -I just use the phrase ‘pop music’ to mean any music I like I guess. To me it’s the highest accolade (but that’s probably just me, I also refer to all animals as pussy cats, feline or not). However, I would disagree that pop music in it’s mor mainstream guise, can’t tackle political subjects. ‘Ghost Town’ spent 3 weeks at number one. In more recent times, check out the nihilism of the lyrics to Girls Aloud’s (Brit girl band formed on a reality TV show), ‘Life Got Cold’ for instance:

    ‘We text as we talk
    We’re running as we walk
    Cos we surf our little souls away
    We smoke as we choke
    As we sink another Coke
    And we grin when it blows our mind
    We skate as we date
    As we slowly suffocate
    We’re running, we’re running, we’re running
    Out of time’

  4. danger August 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Music and social change have always been intrinsically linked.. but music today seems really impotent. Let’s hope a new movement will rise up soon.

  5. Ben Green August 16, 2011 at 3:25 am

    If the tight-arse-broadsheet/American-boy-press’s shallow and ignorant response to MIA last year is anything to go by, the next great political artist will be missed or misunderstood. That was one of the few things that made me want to blog again and maybe I still will. Yes, we all know sexism has a lot to do with it. Also timidity: I won’t go into the music, as I never bought the album, but I did see the live show and it’s the present-day equivalent of the Public Enemy show 20 years back that these guys are all too busy Mojo-ing about. But my point is, it’s amazing how politically naive and boring these critics are. It’s like listening to an undergraduate Young Liberal. Take the “truffle fries” thing, for instance: I bet Marx ate truffles three times a week. Engels owned a fucking factory! That doesn’t change the words they wrote. And no, MIA’s political statements are not “obviously” naive or incorrect, you just don’t agree with them (and probably don’t understand them anyway) you faux-mature, first-world-blinkered bore. It’s much safer to accept that Marx and Engels, and Public Enemy, were tested by lots of other people and must be intelligent and creative and revolutionary. There wasn’t time for the herd to murmur and mumble its way to a considered view on MIA; it was busy leaning and turning, slowly but ever more quickly, towards Kanye with his amazing singing about being a singer who sings about himself. And his fancy belongings (I bet he eats truffle fries). Of course, they were all so “mature” they felt they had to turn their noses up at “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – the most real and exciting thing Kanye West, who is a great music producer and decent songwriter, ever did. Now I am losing the point so perhaps I will write something longer and more considered later.

  6. Daniel August 20, 2011 at 12:39 am

    If pop music reflected the reality we live in, I think it would make plenty of people feel less isolated within the confines of their anxiety over the state of the world. Some think it’s incendiary to address these fears, but it certainly exacerbates the sense of isolation when we willfully ignore them. A song that speaks to the reality that we live in might only assure us that we are not alone with our fear, but I think that’s a significant change.

  7. hannah golightly August 20, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I’m still unsure about what is going on in music and politics. I’d like to blame the Spice Girls for stealing the genuine politics of Riot Grrl, watering it down, absorbing it back into the dominant culture and in the process annihilating it’s agenda and message. But that would be to reductive. It’s quite likely that as consumerism progresses, new markets and semi and demi markets will be mined for and everything becomes a product to consume- even politics. I have questioned over the last few years what the role of the news really is in our lives. It’s something everyone has grown up with and so is rarely fundamentally questioned. Is it too just a commodity now? Perhaps younger people who have grown up with even more consumerism than previous generations just have too many products competing for their attention and politics isn’t as attractive as iPads or whatever? Or are times so frightening that we are looking for escapism in music? Do we crave the mundane that should be daily life from music now, since life is the dangerous thrill? Or am I being to generous to the labels, A&Rs and bands involved? Have they just run out of inspiration? Has everything been done and said before? Would the rock stars sound stupid for speaking politically? Is consumerism and the selling of their records a political statement? Are young people choosing denial over solidarity to cope with the state of the world they’re inheriting?

  8. hannah golightly August 20, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Is a generation raised on aggressive advertising campaigns and intense consumerism just too self centred to feel political? Maybe they don’t care about anyone else, even each other, in a cultural sense compared to other generations before them.

  9. Princess Stomper August 20, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “Is a generation raised on aggressive advertising campaigns and intense consumerism just too self centred to feel political? Maybe they don’t care about anyone else, even each other, in a cultural sense compared to other generations before them.”

    I think it’s mostly that.

    Well, it’s more like how when I was a kid, we were taught at school how to think – to question absolutely everything – and to ask every day “cui bono?” – “who benefits?” Because every single news article you read, every magazine piece, every TV show, every movie, every cup of coffee you consume is being sold to you by somebody who has something to gain. Once you know their motives, you’ll probably find you’re OK with that most of the time. You know, like I can buy Olay face cream safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to make me look like the airbrushed teenager in the photo.

    I don’t think kids learn that any more, and notice it particularly in the people younger than me (i.e. basically anyone under 30). Just thinking of a random woman I was speaking to the other day, and she’s always trying to get promoted so that she can afford designer clothes, and every moment she’s not working she’s in the gym or getting her nails done. I find talking to her exhausting, because it’s like there is absolutely nothing in her head. She’s a bright woman, but there’s no general interest in the world outside beyond vapid celebrity gossip.

    I do understand that, though: when I was getting married, I was working out a lot and getting beauty treatments and whatnot and it just doesn’t leave much time or energy for any deeper considerations, but luckily that phase only lasted a few weeks. It’s probably why the most interesting women I know are usually a little unkempt – not out of any grand political statement, but it’s more like halfway through the day they think, “Oh shit, I forgot to wear makeup again. Oh well.”

    (It’s also why interesting women avoid vain men.)

    That said, as has been said on this blog numerous times over the past few days, plenty of people are still asking those questions and ranting about things, but a lot of it gets sort of lost in the sea of “ooh shiny”.

  10. hannah golightly August 21, 2011 at 11:43 am

    “lost in the sea of “ooh shiny”. ha ha ha ha ha

    Yeah. Something odd is happening. I think in uni they called it Hyper Reality. When I was a student I was a couple of years older than most freshers and worlds apart in many ways, mainly life experience. Well a friend of a friend known as Hippy Clare on account of her outfits and walking hippy pastiche was really excited about going on a protest march. Call me cynical, I’m sure I was, but it struck me that she was really happy that there was something to protest about as if it was a box checked on her How To Be A Sixties Hippy check list. Something about it seemed contrived and fake. She wasn’t talking about the cause, she was talking about the event of doing a protest march and seemed happy at how that made her look. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the reasons as long as someone protests, but I thought it was about her image more than her beliefs. I may have been wrong. Then on the other end of the scale for the people who have no Hippy Wannabe game to play in life, there’s a genuine lack of political care being expressed… or not as the case may be. These people don’t even bother to vote since none of the parties represent them adequately.

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