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The insipid rebellion of the new "rock royalty"

The bloodless brats of pop have nothing to rebel against - sadly they are the role models for a new generation of teenagers.

What does it say about modern culture when so many of our pop icons are famous primarily for being someone's son or daughter? Following the late 20th century, when musicians, models and artists from every sort of background briefly replaced society belles and high-born dandies in the gossip pages, the children of those artists and musicians have become the new aristocracy, wealthy young debutantes whose arrival on the party scene is breathlessly anticipated in every weekly glossy. Coco Sumner, the pouty progeny of Sting and Trudie Styler, has just announced her arrival in the rigid ranks of pop primogeniture by releasing a debut album with her band, I Blame Coco. I don't know about you, but I can hardly contain my ennui.

"Rock Royalty" is the term that the fashion press uses to describe these phlegmatic youngsters and it couldn't be more apt. As social mobility implodes, we have once again become a society that openly fetishises heredity, aristocracy and class. The real royal wedding is shuffling towards us like the terrifying reanimated corpse of deferential 1980s austerity culture, but in fact we've been comfortably obsessed with the couplings of high-society debutantes for years.

Forget The X Factor. If you really want to make it in show business and can't find a footballer to marry, you'd better have a famous father, like the Jagger daughters, or the Geldof girls, or the Richardses, the Allens, the Osbornes, the Winstones, the Lowes, the Ritchies, the Ronsons and the Hiltons.

The expensively groomed good looks of these young people offset the erstwhile dishevelled, grungy glamour of their parents, but we live in a different world now: one where money and connections are far more important than talent, in the creative industries and everywhere else. Contestants on reality singathons sacrifice every scrap of dignity for a shot at profitable D-list celebrity, but it was barely whispered that Young Mistress Sting was thinking of making a record before every weekend supplement was wetting itself to get an interview.

The album itself, The Constant, is nothing to write home about. Bloated with watery ballads about the symbolic colour schemes of bourgeois young love, it's the sort of unthreatening shopping muzak that plays in every Urban Outfitters in the northern hemisphere. Coco has a huskily acceptable singing voice, and producers who know how to spin out a bridge section -- but Sting she ain't.

This is precisely the album that any listless adolescent might produce if she just happened to have grown up surrounded by top-of-the range recording equipment and most of the wealthiest people in the music industry. It's not dreadful, but you could pick any suburban street in the country and find a teenager making better pop songs in their bedroom.

Pop, of course, is about far more than the music. It's about the making and breaking of cultural icons. Just as there was more to the Beatles than the first jarring chord of Hard Day's Night, and more to Bowie than the off-beat drumline of Rebel Rebel, there is far more to Coco Sumner than vaguely rubbish call-waiting tunes. She is part of the new cultural orthodoxy of rock royalty: a pampered princess in a musical world that has come to worship wealth and heredity every bit as much as the establishment it once rock-and-rolled against.

Many of these dull, rich young people seem genuinely convinced that they are in some way subversive artists, and the press is only too happy to facilitate this delusion. A gushing interview with young Ms Sumner in the Independent recently noted that "although she owns a house in Victoria and has just bought a cottage in Wiltshire, she has refreshingly dirty nails". The dirty nails probably contributed less to the record deal than the millionaire rock-star father, but for the purposes of her personal branding, Coco is definitely a tearaway, a young lady who claims to have found her "rebel" spirit when her nanny played her Blockheads records while driving her to prep school.

Publicists expect a bit of stage-managed rebellion from today's debutantes -- just a soupcon of the sort of bad behaviour that boosts album sales without actually challenge anything, like turning up to Bungalow 8 in a really low-cut designer dress. Iconoclasm, though, is not something that one just inherits along with the family pile. Truly subversive creativity often emanates from personal struggle, and that doesn't tend to feature highly in childhoods where people rush to tell you how wonderful you are every time you fart out a couple of chords.

Whatever she claims, Coco is not to blame. Her tedious songs, however, are the writing on the wall -- precisely the sort of music that French anarchists The Tarnac 9 were referring to when they wrote:

It's enough to listen to the songs of the times -- the asinine "alt-folk" where the petty bourgeoisie dissects the state of its soul, next to declarations of war from [rap artists] -- to know that a certain coexistence will end soon, that a decision is near.

The young people of Britain have grown up being asked to honour the uneasy coexistence of the super-rich and the so-called underclass -- but if this week's planned protests are anything to go by, that coexistence may well be at an end. Real rebellion isn't just a fashion accessory. It's a last-ditch response to social conditions that have become intolerable.

With a few exceptions, pop culture today is more about dynasty than dynamism. The ageing rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s may have sold out, shuffling cheerfully into endorsement deals for butter and car insurance, but those who grew up with their music and iconography still took away the message that with enough raw energy, ordinary people could change the world. For my generation, with only their bloodless brats for role models, it's back to the old rules: look good, do as you're told and make sure your daddy is rich and famous. There's only so long you can follow those rules before something snaps.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage