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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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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